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.