Opinion: Village Matters


Cash Cow is Starving

ann christoph

Being raised on a dairy farm, I know the true meaning of cash cow.” On a farm with multiple crops—oats, barley, wheat, corn—the checks for those products would come once a year after the summer/fall harvest. The milk cows, however, produced all year long—thus providing monthly cash to keep the family going until the following harvest.

It turns out South Laguna is a cash cow for the city of Laguna Beach. Income from South Lagunas three hotels (Montage, The Ranch, and Laguna Beach Lodge) produce bed tax revenues every quarter and that income represents 44% of all such income city-wide, according to local budget analyst John Thomas. He observes that even though South Laguna is often assumed to have less valuable real estate, in reality more South Laguna houses are built near the highly-valued beach front compared to Laguna Beach as a whole.  Even though South Laguna has only about 17% of the citys population, South Laguna has 27.2% of the total Laguna Beach assessed value. Thus, for example in 2018 each resident of South Laguna contributed 20.2% more property tax to the city than the average Laguna Beach resident.

Back in 1987 shortly before South Laguna was annexed to Laguna Beach, Bill Rihn, president of the South Laguna Civic Association, and I met with city manager Ken Frank at city hall about the citys plans. Frank had done an analysis of projected tax income from South Laguna and concluded there would be an excess of income vs. the cost of providing city services. He projected a series of projects that would be undertaken to make improvements in the community. The first of these, installation of a drainage system, was completed early on. Since then though, the citys expenditures in South Laguna have been minimal, mostly maintenance of existing facilities. City costs of services are lower as well, since the county manages most of the beaches.

Now the city wants to invest in our fire protection and that is a welcome interest.

At its Aug. 24 meeting the City Council will consider whether to continue with their purchase of the closed Ti Amo restaurant property for a new fire station in South Laguna. This comes after a failed purchase of other lots at Catalina and Coast Highway—an effort that appeared on the councils closed session agenda on Feb. 4, 2020. Although there were more closed session discussions, and an environmental study of the Catalina site, it wasnt until June 29, 2021 that city staffers had a public presentation on their fire station site search.

Never have they had an input session for the South Laguna community. Last week the South Laguna Civic Association held a well-attended zoom community meeting. No one favored the Ti Amo or the Catalina site due to impacts on residents, access constraints, and small lots. There was strong support for looking at other options, like 5th Avenue or even an adjunct to the existing station.

The issue of the fire station relocation is an opportunity for us to think about the future of our Downtown South Laguna” and to remember the initial city commitment to upgrade public facilities—a promise that has remained unfulfilled.  When we ask the city to make an investment in our community (like the Garden Park) there has been council resistance.

Downtown Laguna/Forest Avenue gets a lot of attention and city funding, with a Downtown Specific Plan, a Downtown Action Plan, construction of parklets and the promenade and most recently $1 million allocated for another study of a parking garage. Meantime South Laguna is starving for city attention and investments in park land and other improvements.

Lets be sure that the fire station location is a good one by looking at the South Laguna village area as a whole.

There are several vacant properties that are ideal for community improvements. But they will not be vacant for long. Now is the time to be sure they will be put to uses that will benefit the community. Now is the time to prevent future controversy by public purchase since private development proposals will inevitably come forward and cause impacts on our residents.

The Garden Park should be made permanent with City support.

The Catalina site the city was looking at for a civic use” is indeed suitable for a civic use—a park that could complement the Village Green. Not a fire station.

The existing fire station could be used as a community center functioning just as the Fire Hall” did years ago when we had volunteer firefighters who didnt live at the station.

These properties should all be in public ownership. Lets make the vacant sites serve as amenities for the community.  The city can afford it thanks to the cash South Laguna contributes to the city budget every year.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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