Opinion: Concerning City Council

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By Michele Monda

How do Laguna residents ensure that Laguna will maintain its small-town charm? That charm brings millions of visitors annually to Laguna, but it’s also the reason most people have moved here. We are unique, and the World Atlas even counts Laguna as one of the eight most walkable towns in Southern California.  

Measure Q (MQ) was an attempt by residents to keep Laguna Laguna. It was about capping building height at 36 feet, limiting lot combinations, and requiring new development to provide adequate parking instead of making residents foot the bill. Research shows that building parking structures and widening highways just creates induced demand. It doesn’t fix our parking problem.  

The City Council majority, along with their deep-pocket developer allies and the Chamber of Commerce, spent over $275,000 to defeat MQ. To ensure defeat, this council majority also came up with Ordinance 1675, a much watered-down version of the goals of MQ. 1675 caps building height at 36 feet, no lot mergers greater than 15,000 sq. ft. within 500 feet of the Downtown Specific Plan, design standards for all buildings 15,000 sq. ft or larger (which can be manipulated) and a limited ability to obtain variances. No mention of parking requirements because the council majority was and still is angling for resident funded parking structures. 

Ordinance 1675 passed Aug. 16, 2022, 3-2 with Iseman and Weiss abstaining, and was implemented on Aug. 29, 2022 just before residents voted on Measure Q. On Aug. 26, 2024 a successful referendum to repeal this ordinance was sponsored by developer and signature collector Mo Honarker. This effectively forced the city to refrain from implementing 1675. The first chance to put this to a vote of the people would have been this election, Nov. 5, 2024.

However, City Council decided on May 28 to repeal Ordinance 1675 making the referendum vote a moot issue. The council majority (actually, the only three councilmembers in the room) voted this down. Why? According to City Attorney Garibaldi, this ordinance could potentially violate SB330, a new state housing law. There is also the possibility that Mo Honarker would sue. She stated that if it was voted for by residents, it could only be revised or amended by another vote of residents to comply with SB330. If a lawsuit was filed, wouldn’t the judge simply order removal of the section violating state law? But repealing Ordinance 1675 means that another closely related ordinance can not be voted on for one year.  

Supporters of Q recognize that this is still just window dressing and that Ordinance 1675 was just a way for the council majority to say they were concerned about the look of Laguna and were doing something about it. Yet Ordinance 1675 explicitly enabled buildings of any size as long as they were variegated- but decided at the discretion of the Planning Commission.

Developers got around the 36-foot height limit, which Village Laguna fought so hard for, by calling the decks and umbrellas “temporary.” Despite having these same provisions for many years in our building code – it was even included in the Vision 2030 plan done in 2001 – developers have used these loopholes. This is exactly why Measure Q came about – because it had teeth and would have held everyone accountable if the provisions weren’t followed.

Councilmembers Kempf, Whalen and Rounaghi all voiced their approval for the provisions of Ordinance 1675. Rounaghi wants them as part of the Comprehensive Zoning Code Update and not as a stand-alone ordinance. If it’s included as part of the zoning code, presumably, it would not have to wait a year to be implemented since it’s not a stand-alone ordinance.

The question is: How serious are these three councilmembers about making these provisions ironclad in our building codes? Will they agree to strengthen the wording so that the provisions are followed and not sidestepped by developers? It’s easy to say you approve of weak guidelines, but if you are really serious about maintaining the feel of Laguna, then these provisions must be foolproof.

It is the residents’ hope that the council majority will, in fact, include this in the Comprehensive Zoning Code Update, eliminate the loopholes and make it a real tiger, not just a paper tiger.

Michèle is a 21-year Laguna resident and actively follows Laguna politics. She is the Treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities and is involved with the local arts scene. She can be reached at [email protected].

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Michele, for another informative column that raises great questions. I had hoped that what Carmel, CA’s City Council labeled the “camouflage” building ordinance would never come to Laguna Beach a la the provisions of Ordinance 1675. Carmel’s Council voted against the camouflage of longer/big buildings by changing the roof structures or painting sections different colors, but alas, we have almost that same verbiage in Section 1, (17) (a-1) that Carmel’s Council wisely rejected. Ironically, guess who presented the plan that Carmel rejected? It was our past community development director, Marc Weiner, when he was on Carmel’s city staff. Carmel’s Council voted to retain their City’s charm. If only the same was true of the three CC members who voiced their approval of the provisions of Ordinance 1675 that they voted to repeal and consider implementing into our City’s building code. Let’s hope that they carefully read Section 1 of Ordinance 1675 and limit the mass of developments rather than thinking paint or camouflage will make the mass “blend in” or go away.

    Editor’s Note: Deborah Laughton is the Publisher of Methodology and Statistics and spouse of Councilmember George Weiss.

  2. “Ordinance 1675 passed Aug. 16, 2022, 3-2 with Iseman and Weiss abstaining…”

    No one abstained. Weiss and Blake voted against it for different reasons. Iseman voted for it “as a fallback if the Laguna Residents First initiative did not pass.” (From the Minutes)

  3. The LB General Plan Housing Element contains 14-PAGES of City Actions like this one:

    Action 3.6.7: Encourage the preservation and
    creation of neighborhoods that provide extremely-low
    to moderate-income housing opportunities through
    flexible zoning provisions such as allowing mixed-
    uses, second units and artists’ live/work units.

    The Housing Element then gives ONE-page of Actions actually completed to meet these “Quantified Objectives, from 2006 thru 2013. Table VI-2 tells us 70 Moderate to Above Moderate developments were completed and ZERO projects were completed for Extremely Low to Moderate Income residents.

    Conclusion: we talks a good story but there’s no follow-through to build units, adaptive reuse mixed-use or otherwise.

    Through Referendi Laguna legislates and litigates crisis after crisis expecting different results, but on the ground there’s nothing built or refurbished. Maybe Laguna needs a good lawsuit by the State Governor’s Office of Planning and Research for non compliance to our own GP mandates.

  4. I stand corrected. In the previous 3 meetings on this ordinance Weiss abstained once with 2 noes and Iseman voted no three times. But at this final meeting you are correct – Weiss and Blake voted no with Iseman stating that she would support it only if Measure Q failed as you said.

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