Laguna Beach City Council aims to oppose ballot initiatives

An artist rendering shows a Glenneyre Street view of the 103-room Cleo Hotel project submitted in 2019. The proposed ordinance would limit the length of the building’s street frontage and require that the development be broken up into smaller buildings. Rendering courtesy of Laguna Creative Ventures.

The Laguna Beach City Council plans to oppose three ballot initiatives that would require a public vote on certain large-scale development and major hotel remodels as well as a wage hike for hospitality workers.

On Tuesday, a majority of councilmembers asked city staffers to return with resolutions and voter guide arguments stating the city’s opposition to the initiatives. The City Council is slated to approve those documents and select their authors on July 19.

This decision sets the stage for a majority of councilmembers to square off this fall with the Laguna Residents First PAC and another committee controlled by the hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE Local 11.

The City Council voted 3-2 to declare its opposition to the ballot initiative seeking guardrails for large-scale development. Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented.

“I think what people are most concerned about and what people do to gin people up and get them worried… is show some picture of some building in Huntington Beach. Well, we’re not going to have a big building like Huntington Beach here. We do very little development here,” Mayor Sue Kempf said.

Kempf could only recall the Heisler Building as an example of the panel granting a variance to the 36-foot building height limit during her five years on the Planning Commission. The historic property needed this variance to provide an elevator for wheelchair access to a rooftop deck.

The resident-driven measure targets overdevelopment that could affect traffic, city aesthetic, and quality of life for residents. If passed, voter approval would be required for certain major development projects located within 750 feet of Laguna Canyon Road or Coast Highway.

Opponents, however, argue Laguna Beach’s existing laws offer sufficient protection, and adding more layers to the City’s review process could discourage business growth.

In response to Laguna Residents First’s campaign, councilmembers directed city staffers in June to return with an alternative ballot measure that would put some additional guidelines on large-scale development. The proposed initiative would prevent lot mergers exceeding 15,000 feet within 500 feet of the Downtown Specific Plan area. For projects outside of the boundary, the ordinance will restrict individual building street frontage to 150 feet.

But after receiving feedback from local architects, city staffers decided to continue the discussion to a special meeting on July 26. Architect Morris Skenderian, who has worked in Laguna Beach for five decades, said the city-driven initiative would essentially rewrite the entire zoning code.

“I have some big concerns about this moving forward. After 50 years of being here, seeing an ordinance that has worked and as a result, you see the town that we have. Rewriting an ordinance scares the hell out of me,” Skenderian said.

If the City Council votes on July 26 to send the latest initiative to the ballot, Laguna Beach voters would be tasked with weighing in on at least four consequential questions in November.

City officials appear to be preparing for a future of tearing down and building new, taller, tighter buildings rather than reusing existing commercial spaces, committee spokesperson David Raber said.

“We understand that the city attaches a high priority to keeping their options open for more development in town, so we are not surprised that the current City Council will be opposing our initiatives,” Raber said in a statement.

The Council also voted 4-0-1 (Weiss abstained) to oppose a ballot initiative that would set a $18 per hour minimum wage and other working conditions for hotel workers.

After a tempered response to news of the Orange County Registrar of Voters certifying the initiatives, Laguna Beach’s hotel management came out strong against what they describe as an “anti-hospitality” campaign.

On Tuesday, councilmembers heard from Joanna Bear, General Manager at Surf and Sand Resort; Mary Rogers, area general manager of the Montage Laguna Beach; and Mark Christy, managing partner of The Ranch at Laguna Beach.

“This ballot measure is a fictitious solution to a non-existent problem and we do not believe it is in the best interest of the council or the citizens of Laguna to legislate how we run our day-to-day businesses,” Bear said.

Bear claims compensation packages for her employees already exceed the ballot initiative’s wage goals. Employees of the Ranch earn at least $19 per hour and candidates can demand higher salaries because of the job market, Christy said.

UNITE HERE Local 11 remains resolute in seeing Laguna Beach voters approve its initiatives.

“The workers are the backbone of the hospitality industry throughout California,” union president Ada Briceño said Wednesday. “This initiative allows workers to come back from COVID-19 in a dignified way. If the hospitality industry thrives, we need to help the workers progress.”

In November, the union unsuccessfully opposed the Coastal Commission’s approval of Surf and Sand Resort’s proposed disability access improvements and aesthetic upgrades, plus after-the-fact approval of a 2001 addition to the resort spa building. It also appealed the Pacific Edge Hotel remodel to the state panel, arguing the project would unfairly price out low-income families from staying overnight in Laguna Beach.

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  1. Considering this council’s sweeping revisions to the Downtown Specific Plan last year, the decision to oppose the LRF ballot initiative is sadly, unsurprising. Bit by bit, the council majority is chipping away at longstanding guidelines while substituting weaker provisions. For example, just 10% open space is called for with the use of courtyards in the city’s proposed ordinance/ballot measure. This is instead of the current (and more robust) ground- to-sky open space requirements in the municipal code. Attempts to hide a building’s mass with varying roof forms, different paint and varying exteriors won’t make an imposing building any smaller. Few residents even realize that height changes in the revised DSP now permit an additional story to non-historic buildings downtown. The DSP’s relaxed parking standards don’t help the average resident, either. This fall, voters have a chance to correct the path this council is on by voting yes on the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative.

  2. Even if I shared Ms Sweeney’s concerns, I would never vote for the initiative. I’ve read it, and it is a dense, confusing document. Perhaps that’s because it was written in private by a small group of earnest people with no land-use planning experience, and without the benefit of public input. Compare that to our current time-tested development process that draws upon the expertise of our planning commission, elected officials, city staffers with decades of professional experience in land-use planning, and ample opportunities for public input every step of the way. In November, voters will take their pick.

  3. VOTE YES ON LAGUNA RESIDENTS FIRST- Save LagunaBeach from greedy developers building massive new hotels – parking lots – bringing in more and more and more than the 7,000,000 tourists we pay for. We haul away their trash, cover their costs for extra lifeguards – police – DUI’s – Accidents. When we do not have enough water or power to cover 22,000 residents. Say No to Peter Blake – Vote Yes – Residents First – let’s beat big money builders and developers!

  4. WOW!!! Nancee, I had no idea how dumb you really are!

    Trish set the bar for stupidity in her opening comment but your follow up serves as a great bookend to it. Maybe you can tell us about the hotels being developed? There is only one being proposed and it hasn’t gotten even close to a concept approval. The hotel remodels are meant to attract a more cultured visitor that actually spends money in Laguna which in turn pays for the day trippers. Imagine that?

    Do parking lots attract the 7 million tourists or did simpletons like Toni Iseman and Village Laguna degrade our town to levels that attract the masses? The residents are the ones who want parking so that they can park and enjoy an evening in our downtown. You know, the one you’re always fighting to keep in its decrepit state? No to outdoor dining, no to the Promenade, no to nice restaurants and retailers. Luckily we have Planners that pay no attention to you and your unsophisticated friends.

    Please spare us you self-righteous BS Nancee! What are you doing to beat back the “big money builders and developers?” Your profession online is listed as a “realtor of luxury homes” Hmmm…. Speaking of luxury homes, do your clients know that their agent is an activist hell bent on destroying their property rights? Oh, and speaking of property rights, given how desperately your home needs to be updated, I wouldn’t be hoping for Laguna Residents First to win the election or the Initiative. You’ll need all the help you can get from DRB.

    Lets face it, you’re just another hypocrite!

  5. Wow Toxic Peter Blake – there is something seriously wrong with your angry hate diatribe.
    Chris – hotels? What about MO’s one block long project in North Laguna? Who do you believe pays for tourists services. Tax Dollars – proof – my house is awesome

  6. Mr. Blake,

    It is disappointing that one of our elected officials feels the need to stoop to the level of making ad hominem attacks on one of his long time constituents. It is not uncommon for groups of people to disagree on the best course of action for a community, but a civil society thrives on debate… not debasement. Making a statement about how one would like their community to look is not self righteous. It is a real point of view. I understand that you also have a point of view, but it is not made stronger, better or more valid by using language like “dumb”, “hypocrite” or “stupid”.

    I would like to invite you to a civilized, fact based debate in the future. All of the community can benefit from our varied points of view, but can only do so if metered, calm and fact based. I’m sure our community will all benefit from such a discussion.

  7. Thanks for your input Mr. Quilter. However, this statement, “Compare that to our current time-tested development process that draws upon the expertise of our planning commission, elected officials, city staffers with decades of professional experience in land-use planning, and ample opportunities for public input every step of the way.” is not a good argument IMO. Let’s look at those decision-makers you mention here.

    Our Planning Commission is not made up of city land-use planning experts, One example is artist Commissioner Jorg Dubin who has no urban planning credentials or related experience. He was selected to serve by his friend Peter Blake. Its no secret that B&C appointees are selected by council members who received campaign support and since 2018 many have been pro-development/pro-tourism supporters and not based on any professional expertise.

    Our Elected officials are not considered experts in city land-use planning and most have no related experience. They rely on city staff (with record high-turnovers), planning commissioner’s (majority lacking land-use planning expertise) and usually turn to outside land-use and city planning expert consultants. This process isn’t fool proof either. I believe we have some costly, unused planning documents sitting on shelves at city hall.

    City Staff expertise is debatable. Over the last decade we have experienced a record number of long-time employee separations at all levels, especially upper management, losing years of local expertise and institutional knowledge so no we do not have decades of staff expertise in our city. Many new employees have minimal experience and no understanding of our city policies nor city nuances and many top-managers are hired at the end of their careers lasting here maybe 3-5 years and younger staff using us as career stepping stones according to our city manager. This becomes evident if you have had to inquire at city hall on proposed projects. You quickly see that we are functioning on a new employee learning curve which takes time and as expected can have less than positive performance results. Ever read a proposed project staff report? Wonder why intelligent and informed constituents call in with a litany of related questions and concerns? This is one of the reasons. I personally am not comfortable leaving major long-term decisions such as the shaping of our city’s future up to a revolving door staff barely familiar with city codes and ordinances much less their limited understanding on what makes our community work.

    Finally, “ample public input every step of the way”…not. Maybe some council selected insiders are informed and tapped for task forces, etc. but in general, city held community input meetings/surveys overseen or conducted by city management rarely result in the wishes of residents anymore. That also left us in 2018. Receive and file is the new norm at city hall. Concern with obtaining public input surfaced recently when Councilman Weiss received outcry from residents nearest the new parking lot lease (next to Ruby’s) stating they received no city notification. Staff said they did. But after an internal review, it was found inadequate and they had to backtrack and do the public outreach they should have done initially. Many thanks to CC Weiss for ensuring our city is operating properly on behalf of citizens. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated case. I have had the same personal experience with city notification issues as well.

    As far as I am concerned, the residents ballot initiative ensures that all stakeholders have a voice and not just RE investors/developer’s and their funded public officials. It was created by our own stakeholder professionals with a myriad of experience comparable to the majority of those serving our city today in the categories you mention. The founders worked long and hard to identify potential problems/loopholes where our city could be exposed to changes (takes only three council votes!) that result in over-development and over-intensification and they did their due-diligence in researching other such initiatives adopted by neighboring cities who are pleased with the long-term security it provided them and state it didn’t result in confusion or disaster touted by investors/developers. They also reached out to the local public for input and as part of the signature gathering, I can tell you the public, young and mature, had lots to say about their town! I commend LRF and support the people’s initiative. I do not support the City Opposition Loophole Initiative.

    I hope voters will not be swayed by current city leaders and the self-interest groups who aren’t protecting our unique city nor putting residents first. Vote YES on the LRF Ballot Initiative and let stakeholders play an active role in determining Laguna’s long-term future.

    Thanks for listening.

  8. Sadly, as expected, the City Council last night passed their very watered down, window dressing ordinance. The mayor turned down a request by multiple councilmembers to pass it through Planning Commission first. So, it was rushed through and passed. This is precisely why we need the Laguna Residents First Ballot Initiative. A capricious council only needs 3 votes to do anything they want – and they proved this last night. They are so afraid of resident voices that they did this. Shame on Blake/Kempf/Whalen. Vote out all incumbants in this upcoming election. We need councilmembers who will work for residents not their developer friends.

  9. Nancee and Trish, thank you both for sharing your views and opinions knowing that it can put you in the Peter Blake line of fire.

    Neither of you are stupid, dumb or hypocritical. I am honored to work alongside you in making our city better. You are well-respected residents in our community and we cherish your informed participation in city matters impacting us.

    Thank you for your courage to stand up to public officials, especially one who resorts to ignorant degradation of others to feel good, and who have not fulfilled their commitment to serving one and all. Kudos to the brave women in LB! Vote out incumbents in 2022! #bootblakeout!

  10. Nice try, Michele. The Council strengthened core code provisions that your side kept saying they wanted to weaken. If the LRF leaders had more brains than ego, they would declare victory and withdraw the initiative. As it is, all this badly-written, amateurish document will accomplish is make it easier for your least favorite Council member to get re-elected.


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