Laguna Beach will partner with Newport Beach police for SWAT, buys new fire engine

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Laguna Beach police officers provide medical aid to a suspect shot following a pursuit that ended at North Coast Highway and Nyes Place in March 2021. Photo courtesy of Marielena Verdugo.

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach City Council surged forward with several programs Tuesday, unanimously approving over $1 million in funding for public safety and public works.

The list includes a new fire engine, police tactical training, climate change action, and a new public parking lot along Coast Highway. Mayor Sue Kempf and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen have led talks with residents for weeks to combat Laguna’s parking concerns, and councilmembers have already identified support for the police and fire departments and new green initiatives as top priorities for the City.

City Council approved the $950,000 purchase of a new fire engine to replace one in service since 2006. The engine is the oldest in operation in the City, and has been steadily creeping up on the recommended 10- to 15-year lifespan, the city staff report said.

The decision comes months after Laguna’s Emerald Fire, and during a time when climate change has made fire safety a year-round concern.

The Fire Department aims to have a new engine in the field by July 2023. Once the new engine is in service, the older engine will be cycled into the City’s reserve fleet.

Following City Council’s approval, the Laguna Beach Police Department will enter a cooperative agreement with Newport Beach Police Department for a joint Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT). The program will see two LBPD police officers joining Newport Beach’s SWAT team for monthly training sessions.

Laguna Beach has relied on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in the past for “low frequency, high-risk incidents,” Laguna Beach Police Chief Jeff Calvert said. He added that the joint SWAT team will be able to quickly “respond to and address critical incidents in both cities.”

The costs will be absorbed into the police department budget, the staff report said.

“This is good retention for our police officers… this is a good opportunity for them,” Kempf said, after a survey commissioned by the Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association last July revealed poor morale among some police employees.

A Polco survey contracted by the City revealed dissatisfaction with overall land use in Laguna. Parking discussions led Kempf and Whalen to the lot at 30802 Coast Hwy., which sits adjacent to the Laguna Terrace mobile home park and is owned by Hometown America Communities.

“This is an example of one of the things we’re looking for, to see if we can make parking better throughout town,” Kempf said.

The City agreed to lease the land in a five-year contract totaling around $200,000.

The area had previously been used during the construction of the Montage Hotel, and was looked at for employee parking but has ended up vacant for some time now, Director of Public Works Mark McAvoy said.

An additional $70,000 would cover necessary upgrades to make the lot functional for 52 public parking spaces, including minorly repairing the asphalt, repainting lines, and adding signage and a pay station.

“It does need some work to meet ADA, and to freshen access at each end,” McAvoy said. “…It’s certainly not a rebuild of the lot, or a major development.”

The new lot is expected to generate $225,000 annually for city coffers.

The City Council also unanimously approved a $75,000 contract with ICF Incorporated, LLC to develop a master plan for converting the City’s fleet to electric vehicles (EVs). The assessment would search for grant opportunities for the City, and identify opportunities to begin moving away from fossil fuels.

Residents could also see additional EV charging stations built around the City for public use.

In other news, the City also voted to extend the March 15 emergency order which put guardrails on the implementation of Senate Bill 9, signed in by California Gov. Gavin Newsom Sept. 16.

However, councilmembers agreed to strike a requirement for public street frontage, loosening up the eligibility to include lots where frontage is along private roads.

The urgency ordinance will continue under a 10-month extension to give city staffers more time to prepare a permanent law, the staff report said.

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