Laguna Beach receives signatures for ballot initiative aiming to check development

Laguna Beach City Clerk Ann Marie McKay (right) reviews ballot initiative signatures submitted by Laguna Residents First PAC with the PAC’s founder emeritus, Michael Morris, at Laguna Beach City Hall on Jan. 10. Photo by Mitch Ridder

A Laguna Beach resident-driven ballot initiative that would require voter approval of certain development projects took a step toward the ballot box on Monday.

Laguna Residents First PAC filed thousands of supportive signatures of registered Laguna Beach voters with City Clerk Ann Marie McKay. The hand-off caps a nearly five-month effort by 75 volunteers to collect signatures from at least 10% of Laguna Beach voters in support of putting the initiative on the ballot for the November 2022 General Election.

About a dozen people, including initiative supporters and members of the press, packed into McKay’s office to witness the exchange.

McKay planned to drive the signatures over to the Orange County Registrar of Voters on Monday afternoon. She plans to ask the Registrar to certify up to 2,000 signatures, which would qualify the initiative for the ballot. Registrar staffers are allowed 30 days to complete the work.

“We are most gratified by the positive response from residents during this signature-gathering process” Merrill Anderson, assistant treasurer for Laguna Residents First PAC, said in a press release Monday.

A previous effort by Laguna Residents First to collect signatures was stalled last Spring due to the pandemic. The initiative’s supporters argue voter approval is necessary as a bulwark against overdevelopment and gridlock that could affect residents’ property values and their quality of life, Anderson said.

Voter approval would be required for major developments that combine lots totaling more than 7,500 square feet, create at least 200 additional average daily vehicle trips, exceeds 30-feet in height, or contain more than 22,000 square in floor area. The initiative’s scope is also limited to proposed major developments within 750 feet of Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road.

Single-family home remodels and multi-family projects of nine or fewer residential units are explicitly excluded from the initiative and wouldn’t be subjected to such votes. Denser housing projects of exclusively low-income to extremely low-income housing residential units would also be exempt.

Despite these exemptions, the initiative’s opponents say it would create an additional layer of bureaucracy that would stymie investment in deteriorating properties in a coastal town that already has multiple layers of review.

Laguna Beach wouldn’t be the first Orange County city to apply brakes on real estate development. Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Dana Point have passed similar so-called “Greenlight” initiatives. In 2000, Newport Beach voters approved a right-to-vote initiative to block new high-rise towers.

The principals behind Laguna Residents First are fixtures in the City Council Chambers who often argue against intense development. Treasurer Gene Felder is president of the Top of the World Neighborhood Association and also serves as treasurer for the Laguna Canyon Conservancy. Anderson is also vice president of Village Laguna. David Raber has been active in the Temple Hills Community Association and served on the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Ordinance Task Force.

Councilmember George Weiss and Laguna Beach resident Michael Morris are both founders emeriti of Laguna Residents First.

On Tuesday, the Laguna Beach City Council will hear the findings of a fiscal analysis conducted by Kosmont Companies, probing how the proposed ballot initiative could impact development and city revenue.

“The Initiative, if passed, will likely have a noticeable negative fiscal impact to City General Fund revenues levels over the next decade and beyond,” the Manhattan Beach-based consultant said in a report.

The City could annually miss out on almost $3 million from property taxes, sales tax, and hotel taxes by 2026-27, assuming normal public review and construction timeframe, according to the report. Two proposed hotel projects submitted by corporate entities controlled by the Laguna Beach Co., the Cleo Hotel and Museum Hotel, would trigger a vote of the people if the ballot initiative is approved, the consultant said.

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  1. It defies logic that a group of fiscal watchdogs, who continually berate city officials for spending money, and who simultaneously complain that visitors don’t generate their fair share of tax revenue for city services, would at the same time obliterate $3 million in potential income.

  2. A small group naming themselves “Laguna Residents First” when they are merely a minority of Laguna Beach. It won’t be long before they try to get one of their members on our City Council to promote their agenda. Don’t allow this angry group to speak for us.

  3. It’s encouraging to see that Laguna Beach voters are joining forces and getting smarter about their city government and the impact that political power can have on them.

    This statement, “Laguna Beach wouldn’t be the first Orange County city to apply breaks on real estate development. Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Dana Point have passed similar so-called “Greenlight” initiatives. In 2000, Newport Beach voters approved a right-to-vote initiative to block new high-rise towers”, is proof that other cities near us have been faced with similar concerns and they acted responsibly by adopting an building initiative and haven’t looked back.

    And some had to fight back against the fear-based and fact-less rhetoric from developers/investors, self-serving businesses and City leaders who spent money hiring consultants to skew and squash it just so they can continue promoting themselves and their agendas. Stay the course residents of Laguna Beach. This is your town.

  4. LRF missed an opportunity, they should have called themselves *Make Laguna Great Again*, or maybe it’s *Make Village Laguna Great Again*. Of course what LRF nee MVLGA knows is that few voters will take an interest in voting on these measures, and potential businesses will have to appease a small minority of Lagunans – essentially the old guard. Yup, you know them as the people who have opposed making necessary changes in our city. Newsflash: The Forest Ave. pedestrian zone is a success, the Hotel Laguna looks great, and The Hive is flourishing. We don’t need to vote on every development, that is why elect representatives.

  5. If you need 16 pages to explain something you want the entire town to vote on, chances are it’s not very meaningful to anyone but the handful of people pushing it. Many of the people collecting signatures had different explanations for what this measure is and does. It most certainly will NOT “speed the greenlighting of good projects” as they claim – that’s laughable. Into the hopper with it.

  6. As many of us learned earlier from reading Kosmont’s analysis of the Ballot Initiative and their report before City Council last night, the analysis was flawed because it did NOT include deducting municipal service costs for adding MORE visitors than the 6 million who currently visit Laguna (per Kosmont’s report on amount of visitors). Remember that basic intro business course we all took—Projected Revenue MINUS Costs = Business income? As for Mr. Fried’s 3 million loss in revenue, if my notes are correct Mr. Hira of Kosmont claimed that there would be a potential loss by 2030-2035 of 3-4 million. That’s close to ten years away and once again does NOT include the municipal service costs that are paid for by residents’ property taxes that comprise 58% of the City’s revenue.

  7. As someone who opposes the initiative, I have to say that the question of what it would cost misses the point. This is a debate about the best way to protect the qualities that make Laguna Laguna. I don’t see the need to make Laguna an even harder place to develop anything. This town practically invented anti-development. It’s the main reason why we have done next to nothing about affordable housing for the past 25 years, until the State held our feet to the fire. That’s 25 years of losing more and more of the diversity that used to be as defining a characteristic of Laguna as our village charm and environment. Now we’re wasting time debating the merits of an initiative to prevent a problem we don’t have, rather than spending that time on problems we do have. What are we doing, for example, about parking? We’re griping about lost spaces and arguing about parking structures, when what we really need to do make the town less car-centric. That’s a hard road we are going to have to travel if we hope to be a viable species. End of rant.

  8. Chris asks about parking. The initiative uses the same parking requirements that has been law for years. When a business expands or intensifies use, the law is for that business to provide the parking spaces. The city council often waives this aggravating parking for neighboring businesses.
    If providing physical parking spaces is not possible, the current law provides for meeting the parking requirement by paying into the Parking-In-Lieu fund. Inexplicably the city council has not been collecting these funds.
    If an intensifying business pays the Parking-In-Lieu amount they satisfy the parking requirement and the initiative does not require a vote by the people.

  9. Gene: “Inexplicably the city council has not been collecting these funds.”

    And herein lies the main problem at our city hall. Our City leaders and management staff have a history of picking and choosing how and when they will enforce our codes and ordinances and collect established parking and other fees. Developer/investors get special treatment. Just ask Laguna Beach Company/Mr. Honarkar. How much has it cost us taxpayers for management and legal staff in time and efforts to collect from him? Too much internal behind the scenes favoritism happening that is slipping by unnoticed with our developer-driven Council Liberate Laguna Forward PAC Trio.

    Lack of transparency and trust in our public officials is at an all-time high. The Laguna Residents First INITIATIVE has never been more necessary.

  10. It’s funny how we see the world through such radically different prisms. I feel transparency and trust in public officials is at an all-time high. John Pietig was famously reclusive. He never put himself out for public scrutiny. But here’s our new City Manager Shohreh spelling out her goals right in this paper – in this issue. She returns calls and feels her job is to respond to all citizens. Her loyalty was never to Mo Honarker. It’s to the Hotel Laguna. That Michele Monda would say that the ground floor only benefits tourists is beguiling. I thought that’s what the rooms are for. I see our community in the public spaces all the time. I’ve also never experienced such an approachable Council. They all trsponf to queries (except for Bob Whalen, who gets a waiver because he has a demanding day job). Jerome Pudwell attacks me for advocating for a parking garage, but instead of a cogent argument that addresses my point by point advocacy, he simply claims I want more tourists because I “eke out” a living. How about the replacement of all those parking spots on Forest you people covet? How about a skate park on the top floor of the garage, an adaptive reuse of the Digester, and a transportation hub to park and ride? Any objection to those, or is it enough to levy personal attacks to discredit the messenger? And when LRF continues to say this ordinance is exactly like neighboring cities, they always fail
    To mention how much more granular ours is. It’s easy to get the signatures when you speak in hyperbole about stopping overdevelopment. But as Joe Hanauer says, if you want community support, make it about anything substantial enough to trigger a change to the general plan or zoning laws. Heck, even variances. But to make it so granular as to scare away would be merchants and leave Laguna storefronts in decay and without the tax revenue is just primitive thinking. Come on guys, you can’t oppose everything just on principle. Great cities evolve without losing their charm or character.


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