Laguna Beach council candidate’s business flouts city law

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Ruben Flores is president of Visionscape, Inc. File Photo

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.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. This is exactly why we need Rueben to be elected. To stop the city from making it harder for Laguna beach businesses to succeed. My daughter was the owner of Caseys Cupcakes several years ago in Laguna Beach. She put out Pink Balloons out for a little advertisement the city sent the police over to take down the balloons, they were almost micro managing her business no coffee no seating etc. we finally decided to leave Laguna beach. The past several City councils are doing a great job making Laguna Beach look like Atlantic City in the 1970’s.

  2. Lol. It’s so fortunate that Kelly Boyd, who has endorsed Larry Nokes for city council and appears in Nokes’ advertising, was available for comment on this story.
    Hopefully next week the Indy can find more people who appear in Larry’s advertising willing to be quoted as to why they think Larry’s opponents shouldn’t be elected.

  3. Most retail tenants but for grocery stores and drug stores aren’t paying their rent right now. Nothing crazy there.

    This is exactly why Flores should be elected. We should be welcoming businesses like Laguna Nursery to town. If Liberate Laguna (endorsing Nokes and Whalen) get their way, there will be a CVS on every corner – because guess what? It means more money in the pockets of DEVELOPERS.

  4. I have no doubt that the people behind this were politically-motivated. But the facts are not in dispute, and they speak to Ruben’s qualifications to be on the Council. Voters have a right to this information, as we did when someone dropped the dime on the equally-popular Jon Madison for inflating his resumé.

  5. *If* elected, Mr Flores would be required to recuse himself on any matters relating to the Laguna Beach Company that came before the Council.

    I’m more interested in candidates for Council who are not conflicted on likely major issues.

  6. John, we were so sorry to see Casey’s leave. We still go out to the Mission Inn every so often for her cupcakes. January’s Cookie Dough is the best cupcake I’ve ever had. I remember how hard they made it on her and her space was just darling. I feel like the new tree service has not done a good job caring for the city trees and many of the lollipop trees have not been properly cared for. I agree that there needs to be a change at CC.

  7. So this is what passes for journalism at The Indy, eh?

    Love the attempt at out-of-the-blue, guilt by association tarring of other Liberate Laguna opponents in the last paragraph. A real unbiased professional touch.

  8. Hit piece.

    Man, Liberate Laguna and its mouthpiece, The Indy, sure must be afraid of Rueben.

    The Independent? I think not.

    Next time, let’s see the same number of column inches on how Mayor Whalen has consistently voted for developer issues despite residents’ objections and has ineffectually refused to censure Peter Blake, who freely berates, belittles, insults and intimidates residents at City Council meetings.

    Or delve into the relationships Mr. Nokes has had with Liberate Laguna members (both socially and business-wise) and the projects he’s helped push through – such as the Mozambique restaurant getting a second roof deck, with increased visitor parking engulfing the entire neighborhood and music at times so loud, you can hear it in all directions for over a mile away. Let’s hear interviews with those in that neighborhood about how they feel about Mr. Nokes’ pro-development activities.

    And then there’s the issue of Liberate Laguna’s deep pockets sure to contribute more than the $153,000 to Mr. Nokes and Mayor Whalen’s campaigns that Liberate Laguna contributed to get its last two pro-development candidates elected.

    Liberate Laguna – the best democracy money can buy.

    I look forward to those articles.

  9. Rueben never pays on time!! I had to deal with him for years and he was a major pain. Laguna Beach would be well served to elect anyone else but Mr. Flores.

  10. Whjle accountability should be seriously considered and enforced, so should accusations used to hijack an election funded and motivated by self-interest and power groups. It’s not enough to criticize without asking who and how incumbents and new candidates are influenced, it must be how they respect due process, have interest and ability to understand he weight of their decisions including unintended consequences. Are they willing and able to also challenge c the actions or decisions behind closed doors? Are they able to represent the public, or are they motivated by their backers?
    are they vetted for independent thinking and for personal gain-who is looking at their filing papers and do those ask important questions to help the public know who is acting in their behalf?
    Once City Council was non-partisan but changed and the impact brings consequences.
    Laguna Beach is still a unique coastal village that organically responded to its physical surroundings, imprinted by individual talent and efforts and the voices of its residents who settled and stayed . Until @ 1990’s it wasn’t about “turn over” value, but the incredible beauty and rich history
    and the sense of community.
    Most now agree there should be term limits for officials and appointees to ensure representation is still by and of the people. We must return decorum and long-term vision to make wise decisions and we can do this if we don’t succumb to special interests, partisanship or personal aggrandizement.

  11. This article reads like a paid advertisement for the Laguna Beach Co. By the way Daniel, wasn’t this same Laguna Beach Co. just cited & stopped for unpermitted work at Hotel Laguna by the city?

  12. Oh my GOSH!!!!! Potted plants on the sidewalk???????
    Demolish adorable 1,000 sq ft 1920’s homes and build a MEGA MANSION with MEGA WATT lighting….demo and redo Laguna Hotel’s restaurant without permits……call council members mentally unfit………but NEVER potted plants on a sidewalk…..
    Oy.

    Vote for WEISS and FLORES!!!

  13. laguna has always been very stuck up with code enforcements useless laws like the mask baloney. I hope they all get served with major lawsuits their need to control and restrict liberty like no smoking outside is ludicrous. I don’t smoke but if I did I would anywhere in public that I wanted to.
    I would vote for this guy!

  14. The attacks on Ruben Flores’ City Council candidacy seem to be nothing more than a small-town political smear. Liberate Laguna is trying to stir this sidewalk issue way out of proportion. We are in a town that has invested significantly in making our downtown sidewalks more usable for restaurants and retailers. The city has issued Temporary Use Permits all over town so merchants may use some of the sidewalks to augment their business. So the worst thing we can find on Ruben is that he has some flower and ceramic displays that border the sidewalk in front of his nursery?

    Ruben’s landlord is a major contributor to Liberate Laguna, who is paying for ads to promote their Laguna redeveloper-friendly candidates. Ruben’s landlord has almost doubled Ruben’s rent and refuses to sign-off on the Temporary Use Permit to allow Ruben to do the same thing that restaurants and retailers all over the town are doing. The developer’s “Liberate Laguna” PAC raised over $153,000 during the last campaign to elect Peter Blake as their very outspoken pro-redevelopment spokesperson. During the last campaign, they attacked Toni Iseman. Now they are turning their attention on Ruben

    Ruben deserves our support for City Council, as well as an opportunity to run his nursery business without being singled out for being a City Council candidate. Thank you Ruben, for running for City Council.

  15. Here comes David Raber the sanctimonious moralizer and founder of Political Action Committee Laguna Residents First, to Ruben’s rescue. David, Ruben’s “sidewalk issue” has been around for years, not months (nice try!). Ruben’s pathetic nursery looks like a third-world bazaar. Retail items with price tags dangling being marketed on the edges of the sidewalk and property line. Heavy outdoor vases precariously placed on the roof. No handicapped access and the entrance to residential units on the property blocked. The use of a garage for parking as an office, non-payment of rent since December 2019, and late payment of rent spanning years before that. David, please stop using COVID which began in March as an excuse for Ruben’s financial and ethical indiscretions. We know you’re lying!

    Ruben’s landlord Mo Hanarkar did make a contribution to Liberate Laguna years ago and hasn’t since then. He has the right to ask current market rent and doesn’t have to sign off on a TUP with a tenant who has slandered him and his family for years and has refused to vacate the premises at the request and demand of the property owner.

    Yes, Liberate Laguna did raise $153,000 and spent some of it on marketing both for me and against Toni. In 2018 it was obvious to most non-Village Laguna supporters that Toni’s cognitive impairment had reached a level that would preclude her from being fit to govern. She was re-elected only to continue to be a pawn and mouthpiece for them. She relies on her handlers to script her opinions. She reads their marching orders from her phone throughout the Council meetings. I have requested her resignation and will continue to do so.

    Liberate Laguna has NOT turned their attention on Ruben. He’s not worth spending a dime to fight against. Everyone in town knows what a fool he is. Residents had a chance to watch him in action during the first debate while he straddled the line between stoned and stupid. His partner in the “Dumb and Dumber 2020” campaign, George Weiss, revealed just how absurd their candidacies are. Village Laguna and their newest proxy, Laguna Residents First, have endorsed these two losers. You’d think they’d have better options but obviously they don’t.

    Thank you, Ruben Flores, for running for City Council! Thank you, George Weiss, for running for City Council. This will make for quite an entertaining election season.

  16. Thank you David. Now that’s the kind of logic and reason that Liberate Laguna does NOT want people to consider. I think the Indy should come out with an article presenting that with interviews with Ruben. Otherwise it will seem they have their bias. My own feeling is that no one person or family should own as much of this town as Mo Honaker who, it will be remembered, tried to pay for City staff salaries to expedite getting his plans approved to remake our town in the Liberate Laguna profit driven image they’ve envisioned.

  17. WOW! it’s weird to see that things do change in Laguna Beach. It keeps getting worse! Back in 2007 when my gallery was open on Coast Highway . . the council passed permitting signage, and when i put my sign up on the sidewalk THE LANDLORD threatened to throw me out! I left town, and love watching all of you fools stroke yourselves into a holier-than-thou frenzy to crucify a business owner! The whole world knows how F-ed up Laguna Beach is. That’s why you can’t keep a hamburger restaurant or drug store open. Hey … it’s your property taxes they waste on this crap. But y’all have so much money, you’re entitled to bitch and moan over every little thing.. The secret to being miserable is having enough leisure time. Ask BLAKE!

  18. I believe in transparency. I believe that candidates seeking public office must be trustworthy and transparent and prepared to answer to the voting public. Candidate Ruben Flores should answer to the public on any valid personal and professional concerns or questions the public has about him. I believe he will.

    That said, the contents of this obvious hit-piece with little or no factual substance shows how worried Liberate Laguna PAC must be. They just might have to solicit more development and chamber dark money to buy their next chosen candidate a seat on our city clowncil! Seriously INDY – pulling a former public official out of the woodwork to interview with such ridiculous arguments such as “he just registered to vote before running” and “he’s had code violation notices from the city” is pretty pathetic. First we all know our city code and ordinance enforcements are enforced on a discretionary basis. It’s LB City’s reputation! Yep, it existed even during Mr. Boyd’s public service terms. And, I believe Peter Blake registered to vote just prior to his running in 2018 and may not have ever voted in an LB election. Huh, if this is such a NO NO that Mr. Flores did this, why didn’t Mr. Boyd call Peter out then? Not a peep. Maybe because he was the LL PAC candidate? And regarding financial responsibilities and transparencies. Did Mr. Boyd also forget that in 2015/16 CC Steve Dicterow was exposed for keeping his financial/bankruptcy status hidden from LB voters while running for CC? And it was even acknowledged by his co-council members that they knew..just not the voters! Talk about a valid reason for voters to be concerned and question an incumbent’s ability to be in charge of our city budget. Strange how these issues weren’t important in the past. Seems hypocritical to me.

    VOTE FOR CANDIDATES WHO WILL LISTEN TO RESIDENTS – NOT THOSE SUPPORTED BY BIG MONEY DEVELOPERS OR THEIR MOUTHPIECES.

  19. I’m so impressed to learn from Peter Blake’s letter that he can diagnose cognitive impairment. Who knew that he had mastered the craft of administering and coding the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fondly referred to as DSM-5)? It would be difficult to diagnose cognitive impairment without the use of some mental health instrument. Or, am I misreading his comments? Mr. Blake’s Toni rant may have been more of his Petulant Peter Performance versus an actual diagnosis.

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