Pearson to Seek a Delay in Entrance Project

Parking garage opponent Paul Merritt submits his published initiative measure to City Clerk Lisette Chel.

As the outcry over the proposed village entrance gains momentum, including a nascent ballot initiative to limit its scope and fundraising by advocates of a citywide vote, Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson this week concedes the need to slow the process down and make it more transparent to the public.

In an open letter in last week’s Laguna Beach Independent addressed to Pearson, Allan Simon, the paper’s owner, asked for her leadership in ending the public turmoil over the entrance project by setting a tone for greater transparency and compromise at the upcoming Oct. 1 City Council meeting. Preliminary project design concepts are to be presented then by Studio One Eleven.

In her response, Pearson insisted that a City Council decision in June simply began a new phase in an ongoing process that had included 44 opportunities for public input on the project since 1996. The basic parameters of the current project – a multi-level parking garage and park beside City Hall — are unchanged since they were vetted at a public workshop in January 2005, she claimed (in a guest column in the letters section of the Sept. 20 edition).

Even so, Pearson conceded that while elected officials and staff knew the path forward would involve more public input, the growing public outcry in recent months attests to residents who feel effectively shut out of the conversation. And she admitted that “the buck stops here” and called on city staff to more clearly define the process and step up public outreach.

Specifically, she intends to recommend slowing down the process to accommodate forums and workshops, engaging a project manager to coordinate and solicit public feedback, providing a detailed project timeline, and immediately testing the soil at the site for possible contaminants.

Laguna has been working on a plan to beautify the city’s canyon entry and build a parking structure between City Hall and the art festivals for nearly 30 years; the final environmental impact report on the project was only recently certified, in June 2011.

Even so, in March plenty of people showed up to testify when Pearson and Council member Toni Iseman, presented two different concepts for the project. The Council voted 4-1 to move forward with Pearson’s higher-density concept and on June 11 voted 3-2 to approve a financing plan to proceed with the $42 million project, partly financed by an estimated $29 million revenue bond.

That’s when opposition began to mobilize in earnest, monopolizing the public comments portion of City Council meetings since and inundating the local press with letters to the editor with varying views. Many decry the price tag. Some raise concerns about potential soil contamination at the site. Still others balk at the idea of a large parking structure right downtown and question its ability to reduce congestion. Many simply want to have more of a say in the matter. Signs proclaiming “Let Laguna Vote” have mushroomed on lawns across town.

In a sign that the grassroots group calling for a plebiscite on the matter has traction, more than 90 supporters have committed to attend a Let Laguna Vote fundraiser on Sunday in the studio of local artist and Festival of Arts exhibitor Sandra Jones Campbell, with tickets ranging from $50 to $500, said spokesperson Rita Conn. She declined to disclose the intended use of the funds, but said details about the group’s strategy will be revealed on Sunday.

Proving the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, Conn asserted that the group draws support from political liberals and conservatives as well as Village Laguna members. The reasons for their opposition may differ, but they have found common ground in their desire to let the electorate decide.

For his part, Laguna Beach resident Paul Merritt continues to push for a vote through a ballot initiative. He took another step forward in the process by last Friday publishing official notice of his intention to circulate a ballot measure in the Coastline Pilot newspaper after the city attorney decided on the official ballot title and summary.

Entitled “an ordinance placing restrictions on the development of the village entrance project,” Merritt’s ballot initiative stipulates that the project: will be limited to $5 million; shall not include a multi-story parking structure; shall not allow creation of any public parks (though it does allow for landscaping); and shall not be funded through the proceeds of electronic public parking meters.

As soon as Merritt provides the city clerk with proof of the public notice, he can begin collecting signatures. Just 10 percent of Laguna’s 16,344 registered voters would suffice to place the measure on the ballot of a regular election, but signatures and paperwork must be submitted at least 88 days before balloting, which would push the initiative to the November 2014 election.

If Merritt can get 15 percent of Laguna’s electorate to sign his petition, roughly 2,452 signatures, he can ask for a special election, which could be held in June 2014. The county election authorities estimate the cost of such an election at up to $72,500, while the cost of placing the measure on the November ballot would cost half that.

Merritt was cryptic about his game plan to get signatures when reached by phone earlier this week. He plans an unspecified event Wednesday, Sept. 25, in front of Ralph’s grocery store on Cleo Street.

In addition to a multi-faith “blessing of the ballot,” he and volunteers plan to reveal a “surprise effort” that he claims will be “an electioneering first” in California.

In the meantime, residents with concerns about the project should put the City Council meeting to be held at 6 p.m. on Oct. 1 on their calendars.



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