Laguna Beach set to buy land considered for civic use

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Laguna Beach is in escrow for a vacant lot at South Coast Highway and Catalina Street. Photo courtesy of Google

Laguna Beach is moving forward with the $1.7 million purchase of two vacant parcels in South Laguna for a future civic use—possibly a new fire station or pocket park.

The Laguna Beach City Council voted Aug. 11 to move forward with escrow, which is now expected to close on Oct. 5, and approved a study of potential environmental impacts of developing 31526 and 31532 Coast Hwy.

Although councilmembers haven’t decided whether to use the parcels for a fire station, city staffers and their consultants drafted a preliminary site plan to examine the feasibility of ingress and egress for fire engines. The Laguna Beach Fire Department has been looking to replace Fire Station 4 at 31646 2nd Ave. for several years because of the building’s age, inability to meet current earthquake safety standards, and because the apparatus bays only have a few inches of clearance to house fire engines.

The station was seismically retrofitted in 1981 but city staffers feel it wouldn’t be cost-effective to pursue another remodel of the property—partially because firefighters would need another home during construction.

Laguna Beach’s search for other South Laguna sites for a future fire station has not been fruitful. An investigation of buying the Laguna Beach Dental Group property or two vacant lots at 5th and Coast Highway found the respective property owners were unwilling to sell, Senior Administrative Analyst Jeremy Frimond said.

City staffers also looked into buying the Frontier Communications building at Aliso Beach and determined it was inappropriate for civic use because the building sits in the 100-year floodplain.

“We do try to look for sites to minimize impacts to the neighborhood but siting a fire station is never easy in any environment especially in a built-out community,” City Manager John Pietig said.

The escrow has riled a relatively small group of homeowners from the neighborhood of Catalina and Monterey streets. Charles Degarmo, who has lived across the street for more than 30 years, asked the City Council to take another look at buying one of the sites on 5th Avenue.

“From an impact standpoint for any type of civic use those lots are superior to the lots across from our house because it’s really a residential neighborhood,” Degarmo said.

The vacant parcels being discussed are across the street from a commercial building that hosts NEApolitan Pizzeria and a doctor’s office.

Betsy Klein, who moved into her home in 1986, also argued that the fire station was not a good fit for the neighborhood. City staffers identified a neighborhood pocket park, public restrooms and/or public parking as other potential civic uses but have put far more time into studying the environmental impacts of a fire station, Klein said.

“As a long-time resident, I have always known that the lots would sell and could be built on but the lots are zoned residential so I assumed it would be homes,” she said. “To see that the city is already having plans drawn up for a fire station is kind of disconcerting.”

Matt Lawson, chairman of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, supported purchasing the South Laguna parcels for a future fire station, adding that Laguna Beach needs to reevaluate the seismic fitness of all public safety buildings.

“In view of the city’s extreme fire risk it’s ironic that our website points with pride to the fact that the fire department has the oldest operational fire stations anywhere in Orange County,” Lawson said. “Last time we dedicated a new fire station back in 1968 I was a college kid. Today, I’m now considered historic.”

The City Council could decide to sell Fire Station 4 to help pay for the cost of the land and construction of its construction, Pietig said. The construction costs for a fire station range between $600 to $900 per square foot, Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. Based on the site plan for a proposed 5,000-square-foot fire station on Catalina Street, the estimated total would pencil out between $3 million and $4.5 million.

A meeting hasn’t been scheduled to discuss dedicating the South Laguna parcels for a specific civic use.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Drastically reduced revenues for the city of Laguna Beach, a no-thoroughly-thought-out funding of retirement for city employees, deficit spending by the MILLIONS on pet projects( mangled metal mushrooms in the canyon, anyone?) and now $1.7 million to buy and $4-5 MILLION for a new firehouse?

    What could go wrong…?

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