Laguna Beach OKs $4.3M library building purchase, quells relocation concerns

The so-called Fairy Garden outside the Laguna Beach Public Library was in full bloom on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach will move forward with the $4.29 million purchase of a parcel under the public library with a promise to residents Tuesday that the building will remain where it is, for now.

In a 4-1 vote, the Councilmembers approved the acquisition and directed staff to negotiate a 25-year lease with Orange County that could see the purchase money reinvested back into building refurbishments, and would allow residents continued access to the amenities provided by the regional library system.

Councilmember Peter Blake dissented, saying he supported the purchase of the property but was against the extended lease term.

“We need to buy this property and we need to have the option to do whatever we need to do with it in the future,” Blake said.

OC Public Libraries have operated the branch at 343 Glenneyre St. for decades, but the City Council voted in early 2020 to carry out a 50-year option to purchase the underlying land for local control of the site. County and city officials agreed to put the plan on ice due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

After hearing concerns from residents, the City Council also voted Tuesday to remove provisions regarding the relocation of the building.

“This is a venerable institution… I fear that there is an intention here, because there is a clause in this agreement to look at other sites that certainly can’t be any better,” Councilmember George Weiss said.

A number of public comments cited the library as a multi-generational community resource and questioned the motives behind the three-year term proposed by city staffers. Talks of tearing down the building to build a parking structure had circulated leading up to the meeting, partially because of an email sent by Weiss that called on residents to “help save the library,” sparking pushback from residents who feared the loss of the library’s downtown location.

A petition started by David Raber, a principal officer of Laguna Residents First, garnered almost 1,200 signatures by Tuesday night.

The petition called on the City to present “an approved, well-funded plan” for a new library before moving forward with any replacement of the current building.

Alternatively, the petition asked councilmembers to simply leave the property in county control and save the $4.29 million.

“Just because you can buy something does not mean that you should buy something,” the petition read.

Mayor Sue Kempf squashed what she regarded were “irresponsible” and “annoying” rumors that the City was actively looking into demolishing the library in favor of a public parking structure.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen, whose mother was a library trustee in the town of his childhood, said the library building should be controlled locally and there was no question that the City should purchase it.

“I don’t think it’s a good location for the parking lot,” Whalen said.

Though a council subcommittee has been looking into parking options in recent weeks, no single site has yet been zeroed in, Kempf said.

The library sits on four parcels of land, three of which are owned by the City and one which was purchased by the county. A 1970 agreement stipulated that Laguna Beach could assume full control of the site by purchasing the single piece of county-owned land under the library.

Though the $4.29 million only covers some 10,300 square feet, under the agreement the City would be deeded the entire 25,000 square foot lot in the coveted downtown area, which some estimate could be worth at least twice what the City paid.

Boxed in by the 50-year deadline, passing up the purchase of the singular parcel could mean the City has to buy all four to assume control of the site in the future, Assistant City Manager Ken Domer said.

The county collects $2.8 million annually from property taxes to help operate the Orange County library system. About $800,000 is currently invested back into the Laguna Beach branch’s annual operations, Domer said.

“There’s been underinvestment by the county in this library,” Whalen said. “There’s no doubt about it… I want to control things locally. I want to control this library building.”

Kempf pointed to photos shown by Ann Christoph, a board member of Village Laguna, which featured rich wood planking that reflects Laguna’s downtown coastal historic charm.

“The library itself, and the property around it, just needs love,” Kempf said, adding, “We should have it look the way we want it to look. We should have it operate the way we want it to operate.”

Following City Council’s approval, staffers will move forward to negotiate a deal with the County which will see cosmetic improvements to the building, and will allow the library to continue as a part of the county’s public system for at least another 25 years.

This story is developing and will be updated as necessary.

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