Opinion: Village Matters

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Silly Season is Underway

ann christoph

The months before an election are called “the silly season.” This is the time that the politicians must woo the electorate all over again, trying to say what they think voters want to hear. A time when they try extra hard not to be embarrassed.

When the newly-opened council chamber is filled with single-issue opinionated speakers, they can intimidate not only the council but everyone who is watching. This crowd would have us believe that the young woman who moved into a small house overlooking the patio of an office, (where ordinarily the extent of its use would be some office workers having their lunch) had no right to object when that patio was suddenly converted to a bar with no public notice or hearing.

It was represented that this was done under the provisions of COVID-19 relief for small businesses. Surely it was not intended that that provision would allow conversion of an office into a bar. Rather the special COVID-19 provisions were intended to allow for outdoor spaces adjacent to restaurants to be temporarily used for dining—spaces like parking lots and sidewalk areas could become outdoor eating areas. However, it turns out that this bar, called “Helen’s” had been operating as a “speak-easy” since last August, had been cited by the City for operating without a conditional use permit, and was ordered to close by the City in November. All this was proper City procedure. But in December 2021, with no notice to neighbors, the bar was granted a temporary use permit (TUP) under COVID-19 relief procedures. Why? The worst of the pandemic was already over, and the restaurant in question, AhbA, already had been using extensive outdoor seating in front and on the side of their restaurant.

The answer is a social media campaign by AhbA, saying they would close the restaurant because of city enforcement related to “Helen’s”. Fervent restaurant patrons responded supporting the ambiance and food of AhbA. But as Councilmember Peter Blake was quoted in a change.org petition, the restaurant AhbA was not the issue. The issue was and is operating a bar where there used to be an office, as Blake was quoted as explaining.

Ahba built a bar without a conditional use permit. They built trash enclosures without a permit. They have upset neighbors and the City is looking into it. They are in no danger of being closed by the City. Their CUP is valid. They can continue to run their restaurant. They just can’t open a bar without permission. The City has requested the owners to submit a CUP application for the bar and a permit for the trash enclosures that comply with building codes.

Apparently the applicant did pursue getting a CUP (conditional use permit) for the bar but was having difficulty complying with its requirements. The South Laguna Village Commercial Zone requires that new development “be compatible with nearby residential areas” and parking would be required at one space per 100 square feet. There is no parking associated with the address where “Helen’s” has been operating.

Even though most of the comments generated by social media supported the restaurant and not the bar in question, pressure was felt at city hall. Was there a way to grant a TUP under relaxed COVID-19 standards? That was just what happened on Dec. 22, 2021. It was like having a party next door every night, including smoking, for neighbors directly adjacent to the reopened bar. Thus the appeal objecting to the Community Development Director’s granting of a TUP was filed. The applicant again implored his customers via social media to attend the city council meeting on March 15. Again testimony extolled the wonderful qualities of the restaurant. This time Peter Blake argued in favor of permitting continued operation of the bar and it was granted unanimously, and with heartfelt praise for good behavior of the testifiers from Mayor Sue Kempf. Not such good behavior afterwards in the neighborhood as the testifiers were treated to food and drink compliments of the applicant.

Operating with lack of concern for the neighborhood does not make for a long-term popular restaurant. Other wonderful near-by restaurants enjoy enthusiastic and regular support—Papa’s Tacos, Jackie’s South Swell Donuts, and Coyote Grill continue to do well because their food is good, and their owners/staffs are welcoming and considerate. Laguna Thai by the Sea is also popular but is closing because the property is changing hands. It will be greatly missed. Take a lesson from the now-closed Ti Amo restaurant whose initial owner outspent his welcome, causing noise and parking impacts. If AhbA is as amazing as its customers say, it should inspire similar devotion—just respect the neighborhood and welcome all. Silly season and social media can’t save a restaurant every time sound operating procedures are violated.

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

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