By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach Unified School District Board of Education and City Council discussed adding the school bus yard as a possible site for new housing at a joint meeting on July 15.
“As everyone’s aware here, we’re very landlocked here in Laguna Beach,” Assistant Superintendent Jeff Dixon said. “So finding additional land to develop more units is fairly difficult. But they were very creative in their analysis of the city. And what they came up with was potential sites to add affordable housing.”
Laguna’s Housing and Human Services Committee has looked at school district-owned properties, such as the bus yard and district office parking lot as potential housing sites.
“Now, these were just initial ideas presented, obviously, as the school district, I think we enjoy a strong partnership with the city and we’re happy to work with city staff to evaluate these options and talk about the feasibility of them,” Dixon said.
City staffers are in the process of updating the Housing Element of the General Plan and looking for possible sites where housing can be built. This is in response to a state mandate which requires cities to plan to meet projected housing demand. Last year, Laguna Beach was tapped to plan for 394 new residential units under the state’s regional housing needs allocation, which is the target of a recent legal challenge by an association of Orange County cities.
Not including the bus yard site, the Housing and Human Services Committee has narrowed down the investigation to 10 or 12 locations currently zoned for housing, according to Community Development Director Marc Wiener.
“Currently, we actually comply with the state mandate based on the sites that we identified and the potential for development,” Wiener said. “However, it doesn’t preclude us from adding additional candidate sites to the housing element. If we want to go above and beyond or just provide more options for sites in the future.”
If the City Council decides that the bus yard is a feasible site for housing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the yard would be turned into housing. The bus yard site would need to be rezoned for housing as it is currently zoned as “light industrial.”
“Nothing would happen to this site unless the school district decided it was a viable site from their perspective,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “But you know, our Housing and Human Services Committee has been looking at a number of sites.”
Penny Milne, president of Laguna Beach Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization, said the bus yard, which is on Laguna Canyon Road, is not an ideal building site.
Along Laguna Canyon road, “there’s no place for development that won’t be intense and overwhelming,” she said. “In other words it’s a relatively narrow strip of land between the setback, Laguna Canyon Road and the setback in the creek.”
Milne noted that development in the canyon may face challenges, with wilderness park on either side and the location of the Laguna canyon creek impacting development.
“I think there are a lot of challenges, but I think those are not challenges that are somehow unique to us or unidentified by others,” Milne said. “So, the specifics of aesthetics and density and ingress and egress are going to make a big difference. But in general, could we welcome new neighbors into Laguna Canyon? Do we want new neighbors? Do we enjoy diversity? Do we want Laguna Beach to be a real town, not just a playground for billionaires? Yeah, yes to all the above.”
School board member Jan Vickers pointed out that the bus yard had been investigated as a possible housing site in the past but that it was challenging to find an alternate site to park school buses.
“Obviously, Laguna has a real housing problem. I don’t think anyone doesn’t recognize that. But as school board members, our first obligation is to follow all the rules, regulations and laws that apply to anything to do with land ownership,” Vickers said.
“This property is responsible for where we park our buses,” Councilmember George Weiss said. “Where will we park our buses after that time? Another thing is, if we’re going to use this land to build housing, which I think it’s a great idea, I hope that our teachers, our staff, in schools would have a high priority of living in this housing as well as other city employees.”
The School Board and City Council agreed to continue looking at the bus yard as a possible housing site.
“If it goes anywhere we can meet jointly again as a group and see where we would go with it,” said Whalen.
Laguna Beach was granted an extension until February 2022 to submit the adopted Housing Element to the State Department of Housing and Community Development for certification. The plan will be brought back to the Planning Commission in October and City Council in December.