Forum Reveals More Agreement Than Not

Verna Rollinger
Verna Rollinger

To restore order on beaches in South Laguna over-run by unruly visitors, the City of Laguna Beach should take control of the sands now under county authority, City Council candidate Verna Rollinger said during a council forum Monday, Sept. 26.

The forum sponsored by the South Laguna Civic Association asked the four Laguna Beach City Council candidates how they would tackle a number of unresolved problems peculiar to the portion of town south of Wesley Drive. About 30 residents attended Laguna’s third candidate forum of the election season, which overlapped with the first presidential debate.

Rollinger’s proposal, focusing on perhaps the issue that has most infuriated residents coping with streets crammed by cars and strewn with trash, met resistance from the incumbent council members.

Mayor Steve Dicterow called the prospect of extending the city’s authority another 1.2 miles from Aliso Beach to Thousand Steps Beach “unfeasible” at a projected cost of $1 million. Any change of control would have to be negotiated with county officials, he pointed out.

Bob Whalen
Bob Whalen

Bob Whalen also expressed skepticism. “I’m not set on a takeover,” he said, pointing out some differences in the hours of operations between city and county patrolled beaches. He noted, however, that accruing parking revenue from Aliso Beach, one of the county’s most popular beaches, might offset the cost of extending city services.

First-time candidate Judie Mancuso outlined the necessity of adding beach restrooms, more trashcans and parking to lessen visitor impact on South Laguna residents. She said South Laguna’s issues had been ignored until election season. “Talk is cheap; you need to write a policy that is very specific so you don’t get dropped off the mat,” she said, answering a question about correcting an economic imbalance of resources provided to South Laguna.

If elected, Dicterow promised to accelerate sidewalk improvements in the area. Rollinger said she intended to see that South Laguna received its “fair share” of city services. Whalen proposed imposing limited-time parking restrictions in the area to discourage day-long stays and enforcement.

By contrast, the purchase of a community garden as a city park proved fertile ground for agreement by the foursome.

Dicterow and Whalen both said they could support increasing the city’s financial contribution towards buying

Steve Dicterow
Steve Dicterow

the privately owned parcel at Eagle Rock Way and Coast Highway. Over the year, many hands transformed the corner eyesore, which now boasts well-tended elevated beds, a walkway between levels and community classes and parties.

As the current property owner of the garden cannot be found, Dicterow raised the prospect of using eminent domain, where government seizes private property for public use and pays for it.

Mancuso said she supports open-space purchases, but would want all residents to have a voice in such a decision.

Rollinger suggested the garden purchase as a good use of the city’s budget surplus.

A clearer split between the candidates emerged over historical preservation. Hearings underway for more than a year by the city’s Heritage Committee are intended to revise the city’s outdated ordinance to comply with state and federal guidelines. Currently, the ordinance assigns ratings to structures that entitle property owners to certain benefits, such as tax breaks and variances from city building rules. Property owners and realtors have expressed frustration with confusion that persists in identifying historic structures and the benefits that accrue to their owners.

Whalen said he favors continuing incentives and allowing non-conforming uses in order to preserve community character.

Rollinger vowed to keep the rating system intact.

Calling the current hearing process “excruciating,” Dicterow said, “I don’t want to pre-judge” recommendations that have yet to come before the City Council. Though he did not fully explain his position, Dicterow did reveal the outcome he hopes for. “The end result has to be preserving historic character,” he said.

Judie Mancuso
Judie Mancuso

Mancuso partly dissented, though she said she supported historic preservation generally. Specifically, she disagreed with the possibility that city policy could involuntarily add properties to the city’s registry of historic homes without the owner’s consent. “You shouldn’t be forced into it; I don’t think we should do that to our neighbors,” she said.

A question from the audience about sober living facilities in neighborhoods provoked perhaps the evening’s harshest exchange.

“They are one of the reasons I’m running,” Mancuso said. “The City Council has done nothing to look into these,” she said, contending that city staff and elected officials too readily shrugged off complaints as the state-regulated recovery houses are not required to obtain local approvals to operate.

“They throw up their hands at so many roadblocks; we have to find solutions,” she said.

Here, Dicterow seemed to lose patience. “If she paid attention to it,” he said, the situation requires state-level remedies to revise regulations or “we will get sued.” For example, he said “reasonable” rules would prohibit a concentration of such facilities and proximity to schools. But enacting such restrictions would require working with state officials to rewrite regulations, he said.

Whalen conceded, “we could have been more aggressive than we have.” He pointed to a recent initiative in San Clemente to ban sober living homes from residential areas and restrict them to a commercial zone. “That’s something we could look at here,” he said.


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