By Rita Robinson | LB Indy
After $3.5 million in estimated damages and clean-up costs, and countless anxiety attacks in downtown merchants, the flood in the village business district that came with the winter’s first rainstorm could have been prevented years ago, according to past and present city officials.
“A few years back, there was a project that was supposed to start down at Beach Street at the flood channel and go over to Broadway and down to the beach,” explained City Council member Kelly Boyd. “It was going to be a huge pipe. If we would’ve done it back then when we should’ve, this might not have ever happened.”
The pipe project was proposed by the county in 1997 and voted on by the City Council in 2002. The county and the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to provide $9.7 million to install a 10-foot-high and 14-foot-wide concrete box channel from the bus depot on Broadway to the ocean.
The new channel would have replaced a narrower, 80-year-old conduit now running under businesses along Broadway where it dumps into the sea at Coast Highway and Main Beach. The city’s obligation was to move public utilities in the construction zone, including sewer lines, to make way for the new pipeline under Broadway. Total cost of the project was estimated at $11.5 million; the city’s portion was $1.8 million.
Contracts for some of the work had already been approved and design plans were 90 percent completed, according to city reports. Herb Nakasoni from the county said the objective of the project was to insure that downstream flow equaled upstream conduit capacity in the canyon “so that water could be discharged into the ocean without flooding,” according to City Council minutes.
In a 4-1 vote on June 18, 2002, the council rejected the county’s offer. Former City Council member Cheryl Kinsman was the only member supporting the wider storm drain. At that meeting, Steve May, the city’s director of public works, told the council that a flood identical to the one in 1997 would cause flooding in the canyon and subsequent overflow downtown. Former City Manager Ken Frank said that the new channel would eliminate that overflow.
“If we had gone through with this project, the downtown would have never flooded again, never,” said Kinsman.
“The county had been working on this project and getting the funding for years,” she explained. “They were going to give us $9 million and we turned it down? I’m an accountant, and you just don’t give back $9 million. Somebody else got that $9 million. Laguna Beach gave it away. The result is what we have now.”
Kinsman calls the reasons for rejecting the pipeline project “irrational.” Toni Iseman is the only remaining council member of the four who opposed the project. Iseman could not be reached for comment. According to City Council meeting minutes, council members rejected the project due to unknown effects on the environment and the impact nine months of construction would have on downtown businesses.
“That’s when the county was flush and they had money,” added Boyd. “Now they’re not flush and nobody else is either. Hindsight doesn’t help.”
Elizabeth Pearson was elected to the council later that year and, along with Kinsman and then-City Manager Ken Frank, attempted to reignite the county’s interest and get the $9 million flowing back to Laguna.
“They thought we were crazy not to have taken it,” said Pearson. “They had already allocated the money to some other city.”
The 80-year-old narrower pipeline still runs under businesses along Broadway. “How do you feel if you’re a business and your building is sitting on top of an 80-year-old channel?” queried Kinsman.
In June 2009, the City council awarded a $120,000 contract to rebuild the last 50 feet of the outlet to Main Beach and patch the remainder of the channel up to Beach Street.