Opinion: Why Support A Ballot Initiative Even If It’s Flawed?


By Joe Hanauer

As the year winds down, letters to the editor regarding the pros and cons of Laguna Residents First (LRF) ballot initiative have gravitated into personality attacks from various sides.  No matter how enticing these are to read, this is too important a topic to get lost in tabloid-type rhetoric. As I pointed out in my guest column several weeks ago, this is less about disagreements on the quest to retain Lagunas charm but rather, how can this best be accomplished. Is in fact LRF proposal the ultimate solution to ensuring sound development?

If you have the patience to dig through the personality discussions in letters to the editor you can find some valuable insights into what proponents of LRF hope it might accomplish. In fact, there are a basket of differing outcomes people are hoping for and this is among the reasons LRF is flawed. Its like a senate bill with every politicians interest jammed in.

Many well-meaning supporters are indeed concerned the wrong kinds of development may get approved. This includes block-long, monolithic structures; too much density; violation of the 36-foot height limit; and sterile and uninteresting architectures. I and many others who are opposed to LRF, agree and share several of these concerns.

At the same time, some proponents look to the initiative solely to block currently pending proposals because theyre concerned the City Council wont.

Yet others have signed on with the hope of stopping the growth of visitors to Laguna. There seems to be distain for not only tourists but businesses as well.  The value businesses provide to the City economically, their contributions to the Citys arts and charitable organizations, and their service to residents appear to have no value.

Lets get real! The only way to reduce the flow of tourists is to drain the ocean. So long as we have the gifts of sandy beaches and our beautiful pond we will have a growth in tourism. Trying to limit tourism growth is a fools errand. Determining how to better manage the impacts of the growth of tourism is where a focus should be. With LRF, its not.

The LRF proposal is trying to address everything and therefore will accomplish nothing except serious damage. Its basic economics. If the process for getting certain projects approved involves a long drawn out public vote, the time, cost and lack of predictability will reduce the amount of investment drawn to the City. The result will be that the very charm LRF aims to maintain will be stymied because of the reduction in investment. The needed upgrading of the Citys deteriorating commercial buildings will be put on hold and the cost of redevelopment of even small projects will increase. At the same time the reduction in upgraded commercial inventory will dramatically reduce supply and increase rents. These outcomes will be the product of among other elements of the proposal, demanding every construction project that hits proposed trip wires would need to go to the public for a vote. Projects that could include as few as 10 apartments, combining lots totaling 7,500 square feet or converting a small retail space to dining would need to face an expensive, lengthy, and unpredictable public vote.

Now, youre hearing growing numbers of people acknowledging that there may well be flaws with the proposal, “…but we need to do something and if its flawed it can be changed.” Not so fast. To change the flawed initiative will take another ballot initiative. Think of the time, money and debate this initiative is demanding and were still nearly a year away from a vote. Undoing it or modifying it will take the same and if modifications dont pass well be stuck with what is clearly a destructive set of handcuffs on the Citys future.

Let me get back to where I started—letters about personalities instead of issues. My previous guest column generated multiple responses. Positive and critical. Interestingly, the theme of most of the critical responses was that I was wrong when I gave as an example of the LRFs consequences, had it been in place, the Old Pottery Place wouldnt be here today. These critics are people I know and enjoy, who could have easily phoned to ask the basis for my claim.

Therefore, to those critics, there are three reasons why this would be the case. Ill give you one and you can enjoy searching for the other two. Square footage was added to the site. Therefore the project exceeded the size set out in the ballot initiative and it would have required a long drawn out public vote.  The combination of the delay, cost and risk wouldnt have made the renovation economically feasible.   As I said in my column, instead of The Old Pottery Place, an appealing destination that contributes to Lagunas history and character, there would be a nearly block-long Rite Aid at this prominent Laguna location.

This is simply an example of what the LRF ballot initiative would have likely produced and why its the wrong solution. We do need assurances that our city processes will work. The city staff has been charged with doing an analysis of what can be done to strengthen controls. As I understand it, we should be seeing the report shortly after the first of the year. Lets work together to see what it says and then fashion solutions together with the City that not only work to build an even better Laguna but dont result in damaging unintended consequences. It may even be that a ballot initiative is a solution but not the LRF one.

Editor’s Note: Joe is a long-time Laguna Beach resident, commercial real estate investor, and a former chairman and CEO of Coldwell Banker’s global residential businesses

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