Measure P Panel Argues Safety, Costs

Share this:

By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Opponents and supporters of the ballot measure proposing to raise Laguna Beach’s sales tax by 1 percent to pay for moving utility lines underground in Laguna Canyon and other emergency access routes, known as Measure P, fiercely argued their sides of the issue during an Oct. 4 panel in the Council Chambers.

The sales tax increase would bring Laguna Beach’s sales tax to 8.75 percent, compared to 7.75 percent sales taxes in Newport Beach and Dana Point.

Laguna Beach Beautification Council and Transition Laguna Beach, a nonprofit that advocates for environmentally-sustainable living, hosted the panel that consisted of four speakers. Councilman Bob Whalen and attorney Thomas Gibbs advocated in support of Measure P. Attorney Jennifer Welsh-Zeiter and resident Michael Morris represented the opposition that’s grown under the Stop Taxing Our Property campaign.

One of the supporters’ main concerns is that trees can fall on power lines during Santa Ana winds, sparking fires that quickly spread. This emergency worsens if power lines fall on one of the three access routes needed to get firefighters into the city and for residents to evacuate.

“We can’t sit idly by thinking nothing is ever going to happen to us,” Whalen said.

Whalen added that six fires have been started by downed electrical lines in Laguna Beach over the last 10 years.

Laguna Beach is already spending $2.5 million from existing city revenues to pay for undergrounding utilities, but this is expected to only cover about a third of the cost needed to complete the construction. Whalen said the city’s attempts to coax Southern California Edison into paying for up to half of the project’s costs were fruitless. If approved, Measure P is estimated to annually collect an additional $8.1 million to help with undergrounding utilities.

Welsh-Zeiter was skeptical about approving the collection of more taxes, considering Laguna Beach voters approved Measure LL to raise the transient occupant tax in 2016. She and Morris are also concerned that the city will need to issue sales-tax-backed bonds to pay for the expensive infrastructure upgrades. They would prefer that the city not take on additional debt that could hurt its credit rating.

“If any disaster [costs] exceeded the reserve fund we would be in bad shape,” Morris said.

The language of the ballot measure is also problematic for Welsh-Zeiter because it leaves room for funds to be used on fire safety measures beyond the primary goal of undergrounding. Among these fire safety measures are the maintenance of open space vegetation to protect home; implementation of new technologies for fire detection and firefighting, drones for surveying and firefighting efforts, and improving emergency vehicle access to neighborhoods that are challenging to reach.

Some trees would need to be removed to accommodate the underground utilities, but city staff won’t know an exact number until engineers complete their plans. The ballot measure explicitly states that revenue collected from the sales tax increase cannot be used to add a lane to Laguna Canyon Road.

Morris said he would like to see the city analyze how it can reduce fire risk from other sources, such as construction equipment and arson before it dives into undergrounding utility lines.

“It appears to be the most expensive way possible to reduce fire risk,” Morris said.  “I think we need to give consideration to these other measures that can be paid for as we go.”

Gibbs argued that the endorsement of Measure P by Laguna Beach Fire Chief Michael Garcia and Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella should carry weight with residents, because they’re the community’s public safety experts.


Share this:
Firebrand Media LLC wants comments that advance the discussion, and we need your help to accomplish this mission. Debate and disagreement are welcomed on our platforms but do it with respect. We won't censor comments we disagree with. Viewpoints from across the political spectrum are welcome here. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, our community is not obliged to host all comments shared on its website or social media pages, including:
  • Hate speech that is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic slurs, or calls for violence against a particular type of person.
  • Obscenity and excessive cursing.
  • Libelous language, whether or not the writer knows what they're saying is false.
We require users to provide their true full name, including first and last names, as a condition for comments. We reserve the right to change this policy based on future developments.

Scroll down to comment on this post.


  1. The problem is greed, pure and simple. We all loved Hotel Laguna exactly as it was. The Rose Garden was such an idyllic setting with the sound of the surf and gulls guarding the rooftop. Expect it to be tied up in litigation for some time. So disappointing.

  2. Very poor write up on the Measure P panel. Here’s some more facts. 394 fires over the past 10 years in Laguna, only 6 “caused” by utilities. That’s less than a 2% historical risk of fires “caused” by utilities, not one of them a major fire. The 93 fire was caused by arson, and the recent summer fire caused by human negligence. It will take at least 10 years of planning to underground Laguna Canyon Road – shouldn’t we be investing in new technologies instead of a soon to be obsolete method of delivering power? The language of the ordinance is over broad and open ended. There is no limit to the streets the city council can add – its unlimited. The description of additional “fire safety measures” is broad enough to drive a semi-truck through. It’s an open ended money grab, and can be used to pay for future pensions, future hires, etc. Read the small print! Bonds in the hundreds of millions of dollar can be passed without vote of the residents, putting our city in its greatest debt ever. There are much more cost efficient and proven methods of fire safety, and we have implemented many of them over the last 20 years: 40 cameras, vegetation management, tree trimming, weed abatement, aggressive new SCE/SDGE safety measures including system hardening and covered conducts which all but eliminate danger from overhead utilities causing fires, power shut off options, increase fire pseronnerl and equipment, two large water tanks, early alert warning systems, drones, etc. etc. etc. Measure P increasing the local sales tax is bad for local business, bad for residents and bad for taxpayers. We should budget and pay as we go, as we always have. Individual neighborhoods should pay for their own undergrounding, as they traditionally have for decades. Don’t buy into the fear and fire hype. Overhead utilities have NEVER been the top cause of fires in CA, not even close.

  3. Just to be clear the tax would remain until Iseman is 98 years old or the year 2044. My 5 and 7 year old should get to vote, they will be paying for the tax as well half their adult life.

  4. Distributed renewables solar power among them, is a disruptive technology. Distributed solar will make existing 13.3kV networked power obsolete like digital cameras and Fuji Film. The world is adopting distributed solar networks whether Laguna participates or not, Tesla alone is testing a pilot Solar demonstration project in Santa Ana, San Jose, American Samoa, and a proposal for Puerto Rico. It is unforgivable that our city public works department (project director Wade Brown) has not begun a trade-study of a renewables upgrade for the existing 19th century technology, and they have NO intention of doing so. Until they complete this study, the undergrounding plan as proposed is half-baked, premature, and irresponsible to residents. Do your homework CLB, until you show the trade-study NO ON MEASURE P.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here