Opinion: Village Matters

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It’s Not like the Academy Awards

ann christoph

How do you know if you won a battle at city hall? Maybe someday they will pass a resolution, as they might for Arnold Hano’s 99th birthday and give a tribute. But all those other nights of sitting there and testifying produce little acknowledgment.  “Did we win?” It’s very clear when there’s a loss. The tree we’re trying to save gets cut down. The historic cottage gets demolished. The application for community assistance funds gets rejected. 

The victories are almost a secret—perhaps not to offend the opposing parties, or acknowledge that the Council is actually doing what the citizen testifiers recommended. Sometimes the victory just postpones an unpopular proposal—which hibernates to rise another day.

Remember Let Laguna Vote? “$65 million and you want to do what?” A grassroots campaign produced signs all over town protesting a parking garage at the Village Entrance along with the bonded indebtedness to pay for it. The project proved to be so unpopular that the Council Chambers were packed with objectors on that fateful night in November 2013. After years of work on different alternatives for packing in over 500 cars in a massive multi-story structure, the Council heard its audience and canceled the project—choosing a simpler landscape solution without a garage, built and completed in 2020. 

But now the garage is back! Under the increased influence of the downtown businesses suffering under COVID-19 restrictions, suddenly all the objections to the parking garage have been forgotten, and in September 2020 despite budget cuts due to virus impacts, the Council voted to spend $1.15 million to study it again.

Frank Robinson, who with his wife Fran, mobilized to save Upper Newport Bay, explained that saying “yes” to development settles the matter forever, but you have to keep saying “no” over and over again.

Last week the Council voted to require an initial study under the California Environmental Quality Act of the Fire Department’s proposal to extend fuel modification requirements to the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (87% of the city). Translation:  there were enough questions raised about the environmental impact that could be caused by removal of trees and vegetation required by the Fire Department to warrant the environmental study. This is good news, but not a victory.

It was clear that there was no shared understanding of the situation. The Fire Department’s supporters still emphasized that we don’t want another 1993 fire (who does?), that we need to be able to insure our properties (no argument there!), and that we need to take action to reduce fire danger (yes, indeed!). The problem is that there was an assumption that what the Fire Department is proposing accomplishes all those goals and that there are no other ways to address those goals that might be less destructive.

The assumption that trees and vegetation are the enemies and that we have to make radical changes to Laguna’s gardens and landscape in order to be fire safe should be reconsidered so that alternative solutions can be explored.

How refreshing it was to see that the Rivian movie theater appeal was worked out amicably and with positive results all around. The same can be accomplished with this issue with willing participants and leadership. It won’t be like the Academy Awards with clear winners and losers. Even better, Laguna will win—a continued beautiful landscape, and improved fire safety.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.

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