A Laguna Beach City Council candidate identified as a business owner on the Nov. 3 ballot has been flagged for multiple code violations over the last few years and faces eviction by his landlord.
Ruben Flores, president of Visionscape, Inc., operates Laguna Nursery at 397 N. Coast Highway. Flores is a fixture at Laguna Beach City Council meetings, tirelessly advocating for maintaining mature public trees and preserving historic structures.
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.
“We were warned about violations but never fined,” Flores said in a prepared statement. “We are on record as going to the city counter and meeting at the nursery to rectify these conditions.”
If elected to City Council, Flores would join a five-member panel charged with overseeing the city budget, which totals more than $94.7 million for Fiscal Year 20-21. Kelly Boyd, a former Laguna Beach mayor and councilmember, expressed concern about voters electing a candidate who regularly violates city laws.
“Mr. Flores should be transparent about his numerous city code violations at his place of business, Laguna Nursery,” Boyd wrote in an email. “I am very concerned that while Mr. Flores seeks to be on the City Council, he continues to violate city codes! This is not someone I want on the Laguna Beach City Council.”
The issues came to a head in December 2019 when Laguna Beach code enforcement sent a final notice letter threatening to fine Visionscape’s landlord Heisler Laguna, LLC, which is controlled by Mohammad Honarkar, between $100 to $500 per day per violation until the property was deemed complaint.
The Laguna Beach Co., another Honarkar corporate entity, has pursued developing the 118-room Museum Hotel. If approved, the project would demolish Laguna Nursery and other buildings on the south side of Coast Highway between Cliff Drive and Jasmine Street.
Documents show that Flores met or corresponded with code enforcement officials on multiple occasions and during a January meeting at City Hall gave them the impression he “was willing to do his part to bring the property into compliance.” However, Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis reported receiving additional complaints about unpermitted Valentine’s Day displays at the Nursery the following month.
Flores ran into additional trouble in April, when he sent Honarkar an email asking for reduced rent for three months because of the coronavirus-prompted restrictions on retail, according to a letter obtained by the Independent via a public records request. Flores remitted a $2,000 payment even though Honarkar never agreed to reduced rent, the letter states.
“Frustrated with your years of late payments, safety hazards, and citations from the City, the Landlord sent you notice that was completely terminating Visionsape’s month-to-month tenancy effective March 31, 2020,” Ignacio Lazo, general counsel for 4G Ventures, wrote in the letter.
Visionscape has since been named in an unlawful detainer lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court. A trial was held last month and the judge is expected to issue an order in the coming weeks, Lazo said.
Flores said in a statement that he first leased 397 N. Coast Hwy. five years ago under a different landlord for $4,000 per month. Since Honarkar’s company took over the property in February 2016, Laguna Nursery’s rent has steadily climbed to $7,850, Flores said.
“During that time 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.”
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.
Flores and George Weiss were endorsed on Aug. 23 by Village Laguna, which has been a stalwart opponent of the projects submitted by the Laguna Beach Co.