Opinion: Development Gone Wild!


The Laguna Residents First Initiative to have the public vote on larger-scale commercial projects is a solution in search of a problem. Ever since Mohammad Honarkar exploded onto the scene with a seemingly endless appetite for masochism (and OK, questionable taste on one project), the knives have been out to stop everything he does. But this cooked up conspiracy theory that he is colluding with Liberate Laguna and our elected officials to destroy Lagunas charm is not just a canard, its the Canadian Goose of mendacity.

Lets start with the unfounded claim that they are out to build high-rises that exceed our height limits. The 36-foot limit is a sacred pillar of Lagunas building code. Not one politician or member of Liberate Laguna has ever spoken in favor of eliminating it. Sure, there have been discussions of allowing third stories on downtown buildings (in part to create affordable housing), but they still would not exceed 36 feet.

But then George Weiss, founder emeritus of Laguna Residents First, ran for city council and campaigned with pictures of downtown Huntington Beach with the caption, Think this cant happen here? Think again.” Well yes, I thought about it twice, and it just cant happen here. Too many historic protections, specific plans, Coastal Commission and environmental impacts, parking limitations, and that pesky height limit. Not to mention it’s anathema to 99% of the people who live here.

Then fellow columnist and Village Laguna member Ann Christoph piled on the campaign of terror with an epic takedown of the downtown Dana Point remodel, warning us it could happen right here. A false equivalency if Ive ever seen one. Yes, the generic mid-rise buildings that line Del Prado are not the scale or style we want, but they were dealing with a complete void on that street—empty blocks—and building high density, multi-use structures with housing above and services below addresses every critical need and is smart planning. Its how you build a vital downtown from scratch (and why ours is often moribund).

So now a group of retirees have posited that tourists are the devil, and they want to be the overlords of our city government and planning. Talk about bottlenecking an already tortuous process. The ballot measure calls for public approval of every project that would add 200 or more average daily trips.” Say goodbye to any new bar, restaurant, café, pub, entertainment venue, gallery, and likely retail, too. What developer would want to deploy money into that swirling hellhole? It also calls for public approval of anything that worsens parking by providing fewer than a reasonably necessary number of parking spaces.” Just when you thought we were finally at the threshold of the greatest downtown reformation in years with the permanent Forest Promenade, along comes this initiative to bollix up the works and delay any actions until the town votes on it.

Dont let this tired pro-development trope scare you, folks. Theyll tell you Liberate Lagunas sole agenda is to bulldoze the town. The founders of that PAC are way too health conscious to take on a development project here. Their stake in this town is almost exclusively residential, and their primary goal is individual property rights. But the anti-everything coalitions conveniently conflate their interests with Honarkar’s. It’s a false flag. And does anyone really believe that Mayor Bob Whalen and Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf are taking their marching orders from Michael Ray, Sam Goldstein, and Cindy Shopoff? Good lord!

One of the ballot initiative advocates wrote in lagunabeachindy.com last week, The only reason the Laguna Resident First initiative came into existence is because the citys biased and bought rogue government has continuously and repeatedly failed to represent the needs, wants and desires of Lagunas residents.” He later claims the  developer-supported politicians have demolished Lagunas charming buildings and replaced them with oversized stucco-box tchotchke shops and view-blocking multi-story hotels. Huh? What alternative dimension are they living in?

We elect our officials to move our town forward, and to address real issues like public safety, congestion, resilience, pollution, infrastructure, and preserving and enhancing our unique character by getting historic landmarks like Hotel Laguna, The Coast Inn, and Laguna Cinemas tastefully opened again. Just as they did with the Ranch, Montage, and Senior Center. In other words, making life better for us. Thats not pro-development. Thats pro-progress. And being pro-progress does not mean destroying our past. It means honoring it by bringing it thoughtfully forward into the 21st  century.

This fall, dont be misled with fear based missives arguing that we need to vote on every consequential project because our elected officials just dont cut it. Its a waste of time, money and oxygen. Let the planning commission, city staff and council do their formidable jobs so the rest of us can do ours: complaining.

Billy’s new podcast, “Do Good Works” debuts on Thursdays at 8 p.m. beginning in August on KXFM radio.

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  1. One hardly knows where to start in correcting the large number of half-truths, mis-comprehensions and omissions by this “Opinion” columnist. One wonders how objective the Indy is, when is consistently gives double or triple the column space to tourist-dependent business owners such as Mr Fried and to large-scale commercial developers such as Mr. Ray. They get tonnes of free “ad space” for their POV, and except for Ms. Christoph providing a bit of balance every now-and-then, the rest of us are resigned to 200 word limited LTEs or posting here online. {Daniel L: you need to re-evaluate the balance of views you offer via your Opinion columnists}

    But, alas, we have to fight the good fight. So, let’s dig in to Mr. Fried’s column to provide corrections, expansions and some balance:

    1) “36ft limit is a sacred pillar of Laguna’s building code”. If only that was true. The Ballot Initiative that Village Laguna successfully helped pass 50 years ago was challenged in the courts and VL failed to respond to the challenge so it was set aside. LB has since been operating on an informal ordinance WHICH CAN BE SET ASIDE or discarded by a simple vote of 3 City Council persons. And with LL-backed councilpersons Blake and Kempf oh so receptive to commercial development concerns, we’re already 2/3 of the way to overturning it. So much for a “sacred pillar”.
    2) “I thought about it twice, and it just can’t happen here” (in reference to warnings of incremental steps towards the Huntington Beach-creep). Billy lists all of the permanent and impenetrable “hindrances” preventing changing the character of LB. He assumes all of these hindrances are permanent, but as we see in his failure to grasp how easily the “sacred pillar” of height can be tossed aside, he’s likewise unfamiliar with the ways in which the other “hindrances” can likewise be every-so-slightly chipped-away, to allow for ever more intensification of use in LB.
    3) “say goodbye to any new bar, restaurant, cafe, pub, entertainment venue, gallery and likely retail too”. With this whopper of a FUD statement, Billy exposes his fundamental lack of understanding of the LRF ballot measure. Elsewhere in these comment pages, I’ve tried to help him understand the actual effects and the mitigation measures that any prospective F&B/etc business owner could take to avoid triggering the Ballot Measure. I’ll also be quite transparent about our intent: yes, abusive reliance on “historic parking credits” and ridiculously tiny “in-lieu” parking payments will suffer if the Ballot Measure becomes law. More intensive uses will be required to mitigate their traffic and parking impacts (no more “The Cottage” transforming into “Urth Cafe” and creating a 10-fold of new parking demand with ZERO mitigation).
    4) Liberate Laguna – “…their stake in this town is almost exclusively residential…”. Do I even need to state the obvious that contradicts this statement. Goldstein, Honarkar… please.
    5) Exaggerations about the burdens such a ballot measure would impose on the local electorate: Billy claims “…we need to vote on every consequential project…”, implying that the BI will make things ultra burdensome and stop new commercial development. Such pro-resident ballot measures have been passed in many California cities in the past, and none have experienced the dire “burdens” that he alludes to here. Indeed, you just need to look at Costa Mesa, which passed a very similar BI 3 or so years ago. They have NEVER yet had to vote on a proposed commercial development. Why? Because developers are clever enough to only propose projects that comport with the best interests of residents and therefore avoid triggering CM’s ordinance. Or, they decide to go elsewhere with their “my profits over every other concern”-projects.

    I will add too, that all of the voices who are claiming that nothing has yet been built to be afraid of, or that the BI is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, are being very short-sighted. Large commercial projects aren’t built overnight. Commercial developers play the long game. They work to ensure allies are elected to City Councils. These City Councils then are able to appoint allies to City Commissions/Committees and Boards (CCB). All of these then are able to make for a more hospitable atmosphere towards developer interests (usually bigger & more intensive use projects). With Liberate Laguna/Forward’s spending of >$250K in the past 2 elections, we definitely see this trend. Anyone who is fair-minded will see that there’s a new mindset of pro-vibrancy. You hear it from the dias constantly. The falsehood that downtown is moribund and that Laguna needs greater vibrancy. This message is music to the commercial developers’ ears, but it should be a shrill noise to any resident who values their current quality of life.

    Please go to the Laguna Residents First website to read the full text of the ballot measure. Its only about 9 pages long. Judge for yourself whether the protections it would provide to residents’ quality of life are reasonable. If so, LRF can use all-hands-on-deck to help ensure that we qualify the Ballot Measure for the November 2022 general election ballot.

  2. Michael,
    There’s an easier remedy for you – gain control of council with just one more member. Or, if your PAC can’t manage that, then follow the example of neighboring Huntington Beach’s “Save Surf City” group of 40 members, who are trying to recall 6 out of 7 council members. Seems recalling 3 would be way easier, and then you won’t won’t have to continually explain or rationalize these obtuse ballot initiatives.


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