By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach Planning Commission met last Wednesday to review and gather public input on the drafted “Safety Element” update, which has not changed in almost three decades.
“This is long overdue,” commissioner Jorg Dubin said. “It’s been 26 years since the last update on this and a lot of things have changed. … I think it’s time for action over words. You know this stuff has been discussed, reviewed, and studied by everybody in the city as well as the public and there’s no perfect plan. But you know perfection, as they always say, gets in the way of progress, so I’m ready to move forward with making a recommendation to City Council.”
City Council first adopted the “Seismic and Public Safety Element” in 1979 and 26 years later, sparked by the 1993 wildfire which destroyed over 400 homes, adopted the revised and updated “Safety Element.”
California Government Code 65302 requires that the city update the Housing Element as well as the Safety Element, which includes updated maps for sea level rise, fire, earthquake, landslide, flood and tsunami hazards.
The Safety Element update also requires all new development and major remodels prepare a Fire Protection Plan. Homeowners may need to hire a consultant or specialist to create their fire protection plan when building a new home or remodeling, Fire Marshall James Brown explained.
The Safety Element update requires that new development undergrounds utilities and encourages existing developed areas to underground. The Planning Commission discussed using stronger language, short of mandating, to see that Laguna Beach’s utilities get undergrounded.
“We know it’s a problem,” Dubin said. “ … in the environment that we’re in now with climate change and how dry things are, it’s not gonna take one of those [utility polls] going down to impede not only evacuation but emergency vehicles from getting to the problem. Plus, the fact that one of them going down can in fact cause a fire as well.”
“In the wildfire mitigation and fire safety report that (City Council) commissioned in 2019, one of their long-term implementation actions for that report specifically calls out undergrounding Laguna Canyon Road between the electrical substation westerly of Canyon Acres to El Toro Road,” Associate Planner Melinda Dacey said. “So, it’s already something that’s on the council’s radar that they’re looking at working on. It’s just, I think, a budgetary issue, as well as a jurisdictional issue with Caltrans.”
Tom Gibbs, a member of the policy and ordinance working group, explained that utilities companies are not under any obligation to underground the City’s utilities. Bob Whalen and City Council have pushed for legislation in Sacramento to address undergrounding, Gibbs said.
“We have been working hard, I think the city staff, the city and residents have been working hard to get this city undergrounded, particularly on Laguna Canyon Road,” said Gibbs. “I think this is something that everyone, whether you’re on the commission, the EDPC, the city council should put as number one priority.”
The City is also looking to expand road signs for evacuation routes as well as some footpaths along wilderness trails, Manning said.
“One of our strategic plans following both the Safety Element and the evacuation time study is to expand our evacuation route signage,” said Brendan Manning, the city’s emergency operations coordinator. “We already have the budgeted items for both control measures for evacuations as well as evacuation signing. The evacuation time study that came out last week is going to help indicate those primary areas, and the Safety Element map that we’re discussing is going to help us identify those neighborhoods as well.”
In order to prevent landslides and flooding, residents in the “Del Mar Landslide” area of Arch Beach Heights with private flood drains, terrace drains, and channels are required to maintain their drainage systems. The Safety Element includes a plan to “periodically notice owners of private drainage infrastructure about maintenance and operation needs.” The plan requires the development of an inspection and enforcement program within one year of City Council adopting the Safety Element.
“The only thing we have to evaluate is our ability to gain access to private property, and whether we can use drones for example to get imagery of these drainage systems,” Community Development Director Marc Wiener said. “So there’s still a lot of details that we have to determine and what the enforceability of the program would be. And that’s why we’ve kept it somewhat general but with that solid commitment to do it within set timeframes.”
Members of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee commented in favor of the Safety Element.
“On this first day of National Preparedness Month, we respectfully asked the commission to join us in urging that council to adopt this much needed revision to the General Plan Safety Element as expeditiously as possible,” said Matt Lawson, chair of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee. “After half a year of working with staff to ensure public safety concerns were fully addressed EDPC unanimously concluded that this much needed update to the 1995 Safety Element creates a robust policy framework to drive further improvements in the City’s disaster readiness posture and better protect our at-risk community.”
“I plan on staying here the rest of my life and I’d like to do that without rebuilding my home,” said Community Emergency Response Team Outreach Chief Sonny Myers.
Bill Niccum, a member of the emergency and disaster preparedness committee, commented that the language in the Safety Element had been weakened through revisions. Niccum felt that the changes “most likely address the concerns of a portion of our community that places the value of personal life, needs, opinions, above the many documented unbiased scientific reports and studies from national, international, and private research organizations.”
In light of this, Niccum said “this proposed revision continues to be an excellent, comprehensive, all-encompassing document that will serve the readiness of our community and enable us to better manage the many disastrous and potentially catastrophic threats, our city faces and needs to be prepared for it.”
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommended that City Council adopt the General Plan Ammendment at the next meeting on Sept. 21.