Opinion: Stuck in traffic? Ballot initiative would exacerbate the problem


By Joe Hanauer

During last week’s 80-degree Saturday I was stuck in a long line of traffic. You may have been as well.

As I sat there, I broke out laughing as I reflected on an Indy guest column written a few weeks ago entitled “Another Powerful Argument for the Ballot Initiative”. The writer, a smart and I believe well-meaning guy, described the crisis the City will face someday due to only three roads out of town. Of course, he’s correct.

But then he went on to posit, (and here’s the laughable part), that a major contributor to the crisis when it occurs will be out of towners who come here to shop and dine. He then concludes there needs to be a limit to adding more commercial space in Laguna. It was laughable because I’m sure my wife Jane and her bookstore along with our town’s struggling retailers would love to have just one percent of the drivers going through town be among their shoppers. They’re not. The out of towners are here to be by the sea and the beaches. So long as global warming hasn’t destroyed these gifts, there will continue to be visitors. It’s not the stores and restaurants that pull them here.

But that’s not all that’s laughable if it weren’t so serious.

The Laguna Residents First (LRF) ballot initiative is the very action that would exacerbate the problem not the cure.

Think about it.

The ballot initiative actually prohibits the construction of new parking facilities to keep cars out of our neighborhoods and could prohibit construction of fire stations or other emergency facilities without first going on a public ballot. The very facilities we would need to reduce the impacts of a crisis not only would be delayed if the LRF ballot initiative becomes law but through clever advertising, slogans and NIMBY interests, needed public facilities may never get sufficient public votes. After thorough vetting by the Planning Commission and City Council and with public input, to then be delayed or maybe vetoed due to the requirement of a public vote would be a terrible consequence of the ballot initiative.

If you haven’t already been solicited for financial support for the LRF ballot initiative, you soon will be. Unfortunately, as is the case with most initiatives in California’s proposition process there will be misunderstandings, misstatements and exaggerations about what the initiative is intended to accomplish. As an example, the guest column I reference describes the LRF initiative as focused on “large scale commercial development”. Is the development of 10 apartments on a 7,501 square foot lot, large scale commercial development? How about merging two residential lots that would total 76 by 100 feet, or converting a small store to a restaurant? All of these could require a public vote after years of undergoing Laguna’s lengthy vetting process.

The fact the LRF initiative addresses worries about Laguna losing the charm that brought us here is a good thing. The fact it’s flawed because it goes way too far beyond addressing large scale commercial development is the problem. I hear supporters now acknowledge it goes well beyond what’s workable and they say, well, we can fix it later. Not the case. If approved by voters in November it will take another ballot initiative in another year to correct its problems and if those corrections aren’t approved by voters, the City will be in limbo for years.

The right initiative would certainly get my support but not this one.

What then does one do if one is worried about over development? Let’s see what the City comes up with over the next several weeks to address concerns about legitimate over development, not the damaging unintended consequences that have surfaced with the LRF initiative.

Editor’s Note: Joe is the owner of multiple Laguna Beach commercial properties, including the Old Pottery Place.

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  1. What fire station is going to exceed the 22,000 s.f. of total floor area called for in the LRF ballot initiative? Or exceed the 36 ft. height limit? Or generate hundreds of additional average daily trips? That’s right: none! The average fire station is 2,500 s.f. How sad that this commercial property owner is scaring voters with patently untrue assertions, especially after the recent fires. Residents are tired of overblown commercial projects being proposed that wear everyone down in years-long back and forth battles. The current broken system results in few benefits for the average resident. Like neighboring cities Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Dana Point, we’re saying “enough.” We’re not going to wait until block-long hotels with rooftop pools, approved by a 3-council majority, are in our neighborhoods. Please read the ballot initiative at https://lagunaresidentsfirst.org/ and vote YES on November 8th.

  2. “We’re not going to wait until block-long hotels with rooftop pools, approved by a 3-council majority, are in our neighborhoods.” That’s the kind of fact-free fearmongering that the LRF PAC proponents hope will scare enough voters into voting for this ill-conceived initiative.

    I agree with Trish Sweeney on one point: read the initiative. I have, and it struck me as a lump of coal wrapped in red tape.

  3. Here are some facts Chris Quilter: A rooftop pool on a big deck was proposed for the Coast Inn. Another for Surf and Sand. And yet another rooftop pool (along with 116 rooms instead the 74 currently allowed) for the Museum Hotel project–a design which didn’t even meet Ground-to-Sky open space requirements due to 3 levels of hotel. Another fact: 3 council votes–just like Dana Point–determines what happens. Modifications, variances and amendments are already employed to get around guardrails now. For confirmation, one only needs to drive through the canyon past current construction that defies anyone’s definition of “small scale” and “rural.” Fictional too is the claim that ever-more development won’t impact us. If passed, the LRF ballot initiative would put power where it belongs: with residents who contribute the majority of the city’s operating budget through residential property taxes.

  4. How many of these proposed projects survived our existing development process, Trish? None. Yet the LRF PAC supporters insist we need another layer of red tape to stop them, or else we’ll turn into Dana Point, now that we have failed to turn into Corona del Mar. As anyone can confirm by going outdoors, we’ve been blocking overdevelopment for 50+ years now. There are no signs from any elected official that they want to change our zoning rules and regulations, or a process that includes the Planning Commission, City Council, and Coastal Commission, with ample opportunities for community input every step of the way.

  5. Chris: how about “We’re tired of witnessing the wholesale approval of CUPs which intensify use of commercial properties without proper mitigation of parking, traffic and emergency evacuation issues that such intensification brings with it”. You better with that? Is that a “fantasy”? Do you deny that: a) such wholesale intensification is occurring and/or b) that businesses that have obtained CUPs that grant intensified use have failed to mitigate the effects of such intensification?

  6. Chris, the process is precisely the problem. Most of these outlandish projects never should have been proposed in the first place. Coast Inn took 5+ years. Surf and Sand’s rooftop pool didn’t get stopped by the council–it was the Coastal Commission but that didn’t stop this city council majority from trying! The 36′ height limit has been exceeded at least once that I’m aware of. Meanwhile, compliance with the City’s General Plan, Vision 2030 and especially Canyon Plan seem to have been overlooked for the 28-unit Live/Work Forever project. Those zoning rules and regulations you mentioned for a project now advertising upwards of $9,500 monthly rent for a 2-bedroom. As for opportunities for input, tell that to the neighbors who spoke up for 10 years about the loss of views, habitat and neighborhood. That project is going up as I write this. Just because residents speak up doesn’t mean the council listens. Case in point: the vast majority of callers who spoke against the council giving $75,000 to a high profile political consultant to develop a competing ballot initiative were ignored. The LRF ballot initiative is an opportunity for voters to truly have a voice. Not just political action committees with unlimited bank accounts or those who mischaracterize the BI for their own ends. I know friends in Dana Point fervently wish they had passed their ballot initiative sooner. For them, it is too late.

  7. As the primary land use and regulatory compliance consultant to the Canyon residents over that multi-year slog, I can attest to the failures of local CEQA oversight out there, near the Animal Hospital.
    Local lead agencies are endowed with State review responsibilities like Coastal Development Permits and CEQA compliance.
    Here’s what happened: Former LBCC Pearson snuck through an amendment, in essence the genesis of the original 30-unit goal disguised as a positive, affordable opportunity for low-income artists. And suckered the Coastal Commission into allowing a change to that area’s Specific Plan (above the Big Bend).
    As any wise fiscal advisor knows, ≈1/3 of their rent (similar to a mortgage payment) needs to be budgeted from their total income.
    So today’s reality is that ONLY artists that earn well over $100,000/year can afford to rent a postage stamp studio apartment there, residents cannot be by any means low-income, struggling artists, isn’t that obvious?
    It was helped, progressed by Pearson as a ruse, a Trojan Horse for unbridled development in the Canyon.
    As for the myth that we already have codes and ordinances to curtail intensification without mitigation, plus a Planning Commission and DRB to curb such abuses, I repeat my constant message these 12 years: They are ANOINTED by CC members who hold a majority of seats.
    They are rewarded for being sycophants, it’s nepotism, go along to get along, grant variances, please their feudal lords who granted them delegated oversight.
    They’re NOT going to bite the hand that feeds or they’ll be 1 term members.
    So the system has been co-opted and corrupted: PC and DRB members rubber stamp, if appealed that CC majority denies the appeal, and then it’s down to taking one’s chances Coastal Commission if applicable.
    Personally, I tried and tried to get the Canyon folk’s attorney to file a class action lawsuit, one that focused upon the blatant violation of a CEQA compliance category: CUMULATIVE IMPACTS.
    That is a legitimate method of action: When a city like ours knows that the combined effects of past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects are being considered for approval, their total adverse impacts and conglomerated intensified use MUST be part of the deliberative process.
    This would have bundled ALL Canyon development projects, forcing the city to analyze them in their totality.
    Isn’t it obvious: There are known/knowable projects in our planning and community development departments whose activities, in accumulation, demand mitigation. Think parking.
    I just don’t get what’s happening, there must be attorneys in the slow growth community who could file pro bono?
    Or that by passing the hat, sufficient funds couldn’t be raised, get an estoppel/stay/injunction, and plead before an OC Superior Court Judge the facts: The incremental, collective impacts from individual projects (with little if any mitigations) are cumulatively degrading and considerable, significant, in toto, irrevocably diminishing the environs: Read §15355 of California’s State Guidelines.
    In isolation seen as minor, the greater context of mitigation measures must be addressed.
    The burden would be upon the city to prove otherwise.
    Yes, unfortunately OUR own money would be used to fight that fight, but look at the alternative as it’s happening now: Anaheim isn’t an anomaly, like a lot of tourist-oriented cities as ours, the Chamber of Commerce, entities like Visit Laguna and developers are our shadow government.

  8. Let’s concede that we are unlikely to convince one another of our views. (Still, better to try and fail here than on Nextdoor.) FWIW, I think you’re going to have a hard time selling the dangers of intensification in a town whose population has declined by 3% since 1990. But give it a go. In 2020, over 16,000 local ballots were cast. A couple of thousand people signed your petition. Just 6,000 to go.

  9. We aren’t “selling” intensification: the pro-development faction has been selling “decay” as a pretext to redevelop downtown for their own benefit. Despite this author’s claims, it’s not just tourists headed to the beach: 80% of us who live in town work elsewhere which means we’re commuting in ever-longer traffic, dealing with partial road closures and construction seemingly everywhere in town these days. Employees driving in to work here are sitting in it too. They’re not going to Oak Street. They’re going to work. Laguna has one of the highest DUI rates in the county, a problem not helped by the city council-backed and approved revised Downtown Specific Plan which now treats higher intensity use businesses like bars, clubs and restaurants the same as a store. I think you’re going to have a hard time selling the benefits of selling out.


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