Opinion: Protect our village without the proposed ballot initiative


By Joe Hanauer

Recently 24 fellow citizens and I sent a letter regarding the Laguna Residents First (LRF) ballot initiative to Mayor Bob Whalen. Since some people may be forming views about LRF based on sound bites rather than in-depth investigation, we thought it could be beneficial to share our letter.

First, a few comments. We respect the intent of LRF drafters. In fact we agree with some intended outcomes. No projects over 36 feet with no exceptions. Sign us up! No block long, monolithic, high-density developments that are in conflict with the “village feel” and scale of Laguna. Sign us up!

However, several of LRF criteria go much too far. Here are just a few:

  • Small 1,500 square foot retail stores converting to a grocery or restaurant with daily trip increases of 200 cars demand a public vote. Think about it. A public vote after years of an expensive City approval process. Small businesses then need to spend $100,000+ on ballot fees and promotion with no clue of how the public will vote.
  • Projects greater than nine apartments. Would we ever add any apartments of over nine units if a public vote is required?
  • Combining lots totaling 7,501 square feet. Lots that would comprise a new 7,501 square foot lot are considered sub-standard so why not enable two substandard lots to be combined without the time, expense and risk of a public vote.
  • Major improvements of 22,000 square feet or greater. The Old Pottery Place wouldn’t exist today. One might say, it’s a great project and voters would have approved but there was opposition throughout the city process. Had it required a public vote after a three-year city process and activists’ continuing negative disinformation, we couldn’t have pursued it.

No investor will devote time or money to undertake risks associated with a public ballot. Yet, the aging condition of our business neighborhoods would continue to deteriorate and the innovation and creativity that formed today’s Laguna will disappear. Investment will be stifled.

It’s not simply the additional time and money that’s a problem. It’s that ballot results are a direct reflection of slick advertising, expensive and often misleading promotions and slogans, versus the merits of a proposal. There are many examples of what happens to a community when investment stops. After a decade of decay, knee jerk reactions result in hyper development. That’s just what we want to avoid but this is a discussion for another time.

Here’s our letter to Mayor Whalen.

Dear Mayor Whalen,

As you well know signatures are being solicited by some of our fellow Lagunans for a ballot proposal being called Laguna Residents First (“LRF”) which would require among other actions, that each time several kinds of property development applications are submitted, (including fire stations and other public facilities), the public would be required to go to the polls and vote if the development should be approved. Remarkably, thousands of Laguna properties would be subject to a public vote each and every time certain changes to a property are proposed. Also, as part of the ballot measure the public is asked to revise in technical detail the portions of the City’s municipal code which regulates all property improvements within the City.

We, the undersigned agree with some of the basic concerns voiced by some proponents of the ballot proposal, (the “Proposal”). We are opposed to large-scale block-long developments that would totally change the “village” character of our town. Where we differ is how to address these concerns and how to ensure such development does not occur. 

Being opposed to such developments, we think most Laguna residents would agree that while charming, there is ample room for improvement of our commercial areas. Many structures are nearing the end of their useful life and older buildings designed and built long before the age of online shopping are no longer functional. Non-caring property owners often neglect the upkeep of their properties often times brought about by the red tape involved in trying to improve them. We believe there are opportunities to enhance the charm of Laguna without impacting the village aesthetic and without significantly changing the overall scale of our business neighborhoods. 

These right-sized improvements won’t occur with the Proposal’s broad-brush additional red tape applied to all commercial neighborhoods and many residential developments. The last thing we need is to add a lengthy and expensive layer of review – including voter approval – on top of an overly complex permitting process. We need the public, property owners and investors to have a clear view of what can be developed and to encourage – not discourage investment and innovation. In our opinion, the answer is to strengthen where needed, gaps in the existing land use controls that would allow developers to avoid restrictions and seek approval of a project that is not consistent with the scale and village aesthetic of Laguna.

For these reasons we request the Council direct the City staff to analyze the existing land use review processes and determine if such gaps exist, recommend amendments as well as other mechanisms to strengthen the process of consideration of development. The following are simply a few examples of added requirements that might be considered for larger developments.

  • Stronger Parking Requirements – For example rather than enable projects beyond a predetermined size to benefit from artificial parking capacity based on some historic decisions unrealistic today, grandfathered parking might be reduced or eliminated so that appropriate parking for projects that can truly impair traffic flow will be assured. 
  • Enhanced Environmental Requirements – For example, for projects beyond a certain size additional requirements could be added for requiring trees, solar considerations, sustainability and effective retention of heating and cooling.   
  • Public Input – For example, in order to ensure public input is considered prior to the planning commission and council analyzing proposals over a given size, a citizen’s forum could be offered which would enable input to be provided prior to a proposed vote. Public input at such forum would not be limited to two or three minutes.
  • Height Limit – Ensure the 36 foot height limit, where applicable, is preserved.

Upon conclusion of its study, we suggest the staff report its findings and possible recommendations to the Council. If the Council determines that such recommendations would indeed better control large scale development while at the same time not unduly impact beneficial development, the Council would create a counter ballot initiative to be provided to voters so they could have an alternative to the LRF Proposal. 

We appreciate your consideration of this request and urge you to promptly move it forward.


Cody Engle

Kathryn Burton and Glenn Gray                                                           

Nancy and Tom Gibbs

Jane and Joe Hanauer                                         

Matt Lawson

Barbara and Greg MacGillivray                                

Lisa and John Mansour

Angie Miller                                                           

Bob Mister

Elizabeth Pearson                                                 

Chris Quilter

Steve and Marissa Robbins                                        

Alex Rounaghi

Kristin and Steve Samuelian                                  

Ed Sauls

Morris Skenderian                                                     

Harvey Triebwasser

Bill Witte                                         

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  1. Thank you, Joe. The irony of course is that the authors of BLOZD (Business Leave Overnight Overlay Zone) is that they use your very own Pottery Place as the kind of model development they would endorse, omitting the fact that you would have never put yourself through that kind of ordeal with this onerous initiative and we wouldn’t your splendid little center. Thanks for speaking truth to idiocy.


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