Laguna Beach City Council wades into new South Laguna land deal, new fire station on table

A Laguna Beach fire battalion chief vehicle responded to a brush fire off SR-73 on June 16. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach is exploring whether conditions of a closed South Laguna restaurant and parking lot will allow for development of a public-serving building, possibly a new fire station.

On June 15, the Council approved on a 3-2 vote, councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss opposed, spending $89,199 on an environmental analysis of 31727 Coast Hwy. The city is required by law to complete the study before the $2.7 million real estate purchase closes escrow on Sept. 6.

Although city staffers highlight that councilmembers’ haven’t reserved the 9,975-square-foot site for a new fire station, a proposed architectural design will be inserted into the environmental study.

Laguna Beach has struggled for years to overcome various challenges with acquiring a site to replace Fire Station 4, 31646 2nd Ave. Meanwhile, the aging structure doesn’t meet current earthquake safety standards and the apparatus bays only have a few inches of clearance to house fire engines.

One of the main drawbacks of the former Ti Amo restaurant site is that fire engines would need to exit onto Coast Highway, which could create a safety hazard if southbound vehicles fail to stop.

“I would rather have our apparatus depart off of a side street and not onto a main highway,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia told councilmembers. “A main highway is problematic. It will need preemptive lights to stop traffic.”

Last August, the City Council approved the $1.7 million purchase of 31526 and 31532 Coast Hwy. This site would have allowed fire apparatus to exit onto Catalina Avenue. One drawback was that the Catalina Avenue property would be limited to a one-story building due to zoning rules.

A title issue has since snared that deal forcing city leaders to look elsewhere in a largely-built out South Laguna.

“The reason for the withdrawal was a complication with the property ownership that prevented the person identified as the seller to convey a free and clear title report,” Senior Administrative Analyst Jeremy Frimond said.

One of the recurring issues city leaders appear to be encountering is that adjacent property owners support the idea of a fire station but don’t want the noise, vehicle emissions, and other environmental impacts to negatively impact their property.

“I don’t think there is a perfect site down there,” Mayor Bob Whalen.

Shirleen Blevins, owner of 31717 and 31737 Seacliff Drive, was among the residents who expressed their concerns with a potential fire station on the Coast Highway site.

“Erecting a fire station on this site will create safety, environmental, and negative economic damages to our neighbors and to us,” Blevins said.

A few residents were particularly concerned about firefighters attempting to drive an engine down a narrow alley off Seacliff Drive. The Fire Department would limit alley access to firefighters’ personal vehicles, Garcia said.

Iseman reiterated feedback from a South Laguna resident about permanently removing a resident-serving restaurant building.

“The first email I got that was really compelling was someone pointing out the value of commercial businesses… in order to establish a sense of community,” she said. “When it turns into a fire station, it’s you know not going to strengthen their sense of community.”

In a May 24 letter, the South Laguna Civic Association urged councilmembers to continue negotiations with Berndt Lohr-Schmidt, owner of a collection of five properties totaling about 18,800 square feet bound by Coast Highway, 5th Avenue, Virginia Way, and Providence Mission Hospital.

“These properties represent a template on which a number of civic projects can be undertaken that is rare in Laguna Beach,” Association President Greg O’Laughlin wrote in the letter. “And with the continued growth of the community of South Laguna in both residents and numbers of visitors, acquisition of this site by the City for public purposes would endow our neighborhood with precious opportunity to address these needs.”

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