Opinion: Protecting Laguna Beach from Over-development

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By Michael Morris

The Laguna Residents First ballot initiative (BI) works to protect our city from over-development by involving voters in the approval process for large developments. The ballot initiative uses provisions in the California state zoning laws to establish an overlay zone which we call the “Beautiful Laguna Overlay Zoning District” (BLOZD). This overlay zone will exist 750 feet from both sides of the center-lines of Laguna Canyon Road and Coast Highway within the city boundaries. Parcels outside of this overlay zone are entirely unaffected by the ballot initiative. Only parcels that sit in this overlay zone are subject to its conditions, with some exemptions. The following types of projects are not subject to conditions of the BI even if they sit in the BLOZD:

  • Single-family residential projects
  • Multi-family residential of nine or fewer units
  • Multi-family residential of any size that are low-income exclusively
  • Projects exclusively for public or private K-12 schools, museums, hospitals or houses of worship
  • Repair or replacement of an existing building that has been damaged by fire, flood, wind, earthquake, or other disasters, up to the original size, placement, and density
  • Minor modifications to existing buildings

If a proposed development sits in the BLOZD and doesn’t qualify for any of these exemptions it will be subject to threshold conditions.

  • Worsens traffic by adding 200 or more additional daily trips to that parcel (above the current trip levels)
  • Provides inadequate on-site parking (defined as the parking requirements in place before the update to the Downtown Specific Plan reduced all requirements)
  • Project is over 22,000 square feet of floor space
  • Project combines two or more parcels to exceed 7,500 square feet or 6,000 square feet in downtown where lots are smaller
  • Proposes a height over what is permitted today, including an overall height limit in Laguna Beach of 36 feet
  • An “Enough is Enough” provision that restricts several large-scale commercial developments in close proximity and in the same time-frame; to regain neighborhood tranquility.

If one or more of these conditions is met, the developer has the option to either alter the plans to avoid the triggering, or to pay for an election at which registered Laguna Beach voters get to decide whether the project can move forward or not. A simple majority voting yes would allow the project to be removed from the BLOZD and then move forward only adhering to the zoning requirements of its underlying zone. When distilled to basics it’s pretty simple.

Some have noticed that there are similarities between the local ballot initiative and those of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. Similarities exist largely because the case law surrounding the approach to zoning that the BI takes has proven to be sound. Similarities also exist because efforts were supported by the generous help of people who worked to pass the ballot initiatives in our neighboring towns. Towns that have experienced continued economic vibrancy even after their respective ballot initiatives were enacted and helped lessen over-development. LRF and its supporters believe that Laguna can keep its heritage and charm while thoughtfully keeping up with the times, and that finding the balance requires direct voter involvement.

The ballot initiative is merely 18 pages long. I urge Laguna Beach residents to visit lagunaresidentsfirst.com to read the document for themselves.

Michael, a Laguna homeowner, is a founder and former Treasurer of Laguna Residents First PAC. He previously served a one-year term on the Orange County Grand Jury and as an appointed trustee to the Orange County Vector Control District.

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  1. Mike:
    Thanks for being willing to patiently provide clarity on this initiative, which it seems to me needs to be constantly, vigilantly, redundantly pointed out in both what it IS, and what it is NOT.
    Plus: What it will DO and what it WON’T.
    What YOU created/drafted, not people’s “Rashomon” (subjective reality) opinion or knee jerk, prima facie appraisal…I think your intent is pertinent.
    An interesting survey would cross-reference those who voted YES on Newsom’s Recall, and those who voted NO with the locals intent upon a doting attitude, in some cases gaslighting via trolling or guest columns?
    Is there decision-tree correlation, can you like a Gubernatorial recall but not a slow-growth initiative?
    I ask this uncomfortable question because it’s there, staring us in the face.
    The difference between alarmist “Chicken Littles” and alarmist “Cassandras” is part of the playing field here.
    A lot of “fear and loathing,” resulting in possible irrevocable polarization, has led to extremists dominating the media. Always the loudest and most verbal, one must wonder if there is in fact an undecided mass of locals who aren’t able to assess then decide as the extremes have dominated the conversation, kept their heads down, who haven’t had a voice while the virtual room temperature is so hot?
    Is there in fact, a la the 70s, a silent majority that are scratching their heads, wondering when the acrimonious, zero sum game of bickering online, in print and in LB City Council Chambers will (if ever) end?
    Frankly, I’m personally undecided, on the fence, a lot of my reservations are centered around legality: If passed, will the initiative put us into a long term wash/rinse/spin cycle of litigation?
    Considering that the deeper pockets MIGHT or MIGHT NOT prevail, the ramifications could ensnare us in a continuous loop within the court system, maybe 2-3 years or more as it works it’s crazy way up to State appellate levels.
    This could hold up ALL development, so watch what you wish for regardless of your side.
    And the proffered debate that’s been suggested, between what appears to be eternally oppositional, name-calling, ad hominem focused groups? IMO worthless, a debate won’t settle what is inevitably going to be legally (and yes, lawfully) challenged post approval. Res ipsa loquitur.
    I mean what’s next, hold a bake sale and whomever sells the most cookies wins? A singular debate, with the 2 opponents, would just end up spinning off more debates because that middle ground (people like myself with reservations) won’t be represented.
    Who in their right natural mind thinks this is still a reasonable discussion or will trigger rational dialogue? It’s like our national political scene, rife with bitterness, the divide widening not narrowing due to the rhetoric.
    Here in my native California, we have the protocols, procedures and policies in place that allow for municipal, county or state initiatives, assure the people a modicum of responsive control, holding governance accountable more expeditiously, more thoroughly than 4 year cycles.
    Initiatives are a legitimately condoned tool, and the only way we’re going to hear that middle ground voice will be this way, not some hokey contrived debate for the PAC’s bloodletting or therapeutic venting.
    If anyone believes that initiatives are abusive, then form a PAC and change the laws. Light a candle, stop cursing the darkness.

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