A candidate for Laguna Beach City Council triumphed over an unlawful detainer lawsuit filed against his landscaping nursery in Orange County Superior Court but now faces a Nov. 9 deadline to vacate the property.
Ruben Flores, president of Visionscape, Inc. which operates Laguna Nursery at 397 N. Coast Hwy., said Wednesday that the judge tossed the complaint from Heisler Laguna LLC, a corporation controlled by Laguna Beach Co. CEO Mohammad Honarkar. The landlord’s attorney had claimed Flores violated city ordinances attracting code enforcement, failed to pay rent, and was served with a 30-day notice to leave the property.
Superior Court Commissioner Carmen Luege ruled on Oct. 7 in favor of Visionscape, in part, because the unlawful detainer complaint was filed before the expiration of a 30-day notice to terminate, according to court records.
“Laguna Nursery has done so much to abide by the rules and yes these are difficult times financially,” Flores said in a statement. “We try and act responsively when a couple of warnings have come down the pike. This all really only erupted when I asked for a break in the rent during the pandemic.”
Ignacio Lazo, general counsel for 4G Ventures, confirmed that Flores was served with a new notice that his month-to-month agreement had been terminated and his tenancy would end on Nov. 9.
Lazo declined to comment further on the outcome of the legal complaint.
The Laguna Beach Co. has proposed developing the Museum Hotel in the 300 block of N. Coast Highway, which would require demolishing the current home of Laguna Nursery and adjacent building. Flores has spoken against the project during public meetings.
Despite his legal victory, Flores said he was served with a new notice to vacate his commercial space at Coast Highway and Jasmine Street by Nov. 9. He is looking for a new site in Laguna Beach that is zoned for his business but the search has been challenging so far.
Flores first leased the property in September 2015 under a different landlord for $4,000 per month. Honarkar’s corporation took over the property in February 2016. Laguna Nursery’s rent has steadily climbed to $7,850 as of last month, representing a 96% increase over five years.
Since at least October 2017, Laguna Nursery has been investigated by Laguna Beach code enforcement for various municipal code violations, according to public documents. Photos taken by code enforcement officers show potted plants display on the curb, shade tarps hanging from public trees, objects blocking emergency access to adjacent apartments, and use of a garage as an unpermitted office rather than making it available for parking.
Even though Flores has committed to correcting the violations, code enforcement officers reported new complaints of violations cropping up at the property.
Laguna Beach code enforcement sent Laguna Nursery another letter on Aug. 25 saying it continued to receive complaints of unpermitted outdoor displays on the property and potted plants on the sidewalk. The letter states that records show Laguna Nursery submitted an application for a temporary use permit (TUP) to legalize the displays. In May, the City Council broadened access to TUPs to help businesses struggling during the pandemic by allowing temporary signage and merchandise displays.
“Unfortunately, the property owner is refusing to sign and therefore, we cannot move forward with issuing a TUP,” Code Enforcement Supervisor Lillian Irish wrote.
Eric Bostwick, a property manager for 4G Ventures, spoke during public comment at the Laguna Beach City Council meeting on Tuesday to share his company’s perspective on the effort to evict Laguna Nursery.
“We gave him notice prior to COVID-19 to vacate the space,” he said. “We were really frustrated with him so we served him with two separate notices at the time. The judge has informed us that we cannot serve two at a time.”
Bostwick added that Flores has used the pandemic as an excuse to stay on the property and not pay rent.
“You can ask any of our tenants in Laguna Beach, we’ve been more than happy to work with them and help them,” Bostwick said.
Flores points out that his disagreement with his landlord extends far beyond the code enforcement issues.
Laguna Nursery was billed and paid for electricity for the entire property, which includes the Nursery and three apartments. It allegedly took months for Honarkar’s team to address this issue.
A stubborn water leak has also plagued the property since at least October 2019. After the landlord’s team promised to close the leak, Flores eventually looped in the Water Quality Department who contacted the property but said they couldn’t do anything more.
“It continued to leak to the point where it ran through the heart of our outdoor space, spurting out when you walked over the tiles,” Flores said.
Amid the ongoing eviction process, Flores is running for one of two open city council seats in November. He faces a hard-fought election against two incumbents as well as another challenger supported by a well-funded political action committee.
Regardless of who is elected Nov. 3, Flores hopes he’ll be able to reopen at a new location in the city.
“There have been numerous financial circumstances with the landlord that has led to this being a less than desirable location,” Flores said. “However, Laguna Beach is running out of Coast Highway property where a retail nursery can be run, so we have been trying to stick it out until the property would be demolished for the new development.”