In assessing last year’s standout moments and what looms ahead in 2014, Laguna Beach’s elected officials differed little in their analysis about high and low points, but voiced confidence in building on accomplishments set in motion and seeing some to fruition in the next 12 months.
The village entrance, urban planning, a view ordinance, public safety, and parking and circulation management surfaced both as key accomplishments and major concerns going forward.
“I think it’s fairly obvious the biggest issue was village entrance,” claimed Steve Dicterow, referring to the long-awaited but hotly contested plan to beautify the city’s canyon entry with a park and parking structure. Following months of formal and informal public debate, the City Council nixed the parking structure thanks to a land purchase on Laguna Canyon Road that could compensate for parking spaces displaced by a planned park.
Toni Iseman, a 14-year council member, called the debate “one of the most divisive issues we have ever faced.” She further pointed to the emergence of grassroots opposition to the parking structure that involved an unlikely alliance of disparate groups with varied objections.
Mayor Elizabeth Pearson, the entrance’s most vocal advocate, applauded the unexpected land purchase that resulted in “a major step towards creating a beautified ‘gateway’ into the downtown at Forest and the 133.”
Robert Whalen, too, found significance in the Council’s decision-making, which “broke the 25-year logjam” on the project.
“I think the community will look back and say it was a community decision not just the Council,” said Dicterow. “I feel it was democracy at its best.”
Many projects cited as accomplishments for 2013, will serve double duty as focus points going forward, Whalen pointed out. For example, long-range plans for Laguna Canyon Road improvements, including utility undergrounding, road widening, and the addition of bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, began to move ahead. A subcommittee of Whalen and Iseman plans a preliminary report by February, he said.
Another example involved hiring an urban planner to analyze the downtown and adjacent areas, a priority established in January 2013. This month, the Council expects to authorize a request for proposals from targeted experts to comprehensively look at the city’s land use.
Dicterow believes the process will spark a public debate about retaining Laguna’s innate charm and wondered if a planner can resolve such a dilemma. “…If not, we need to create a community process to openly discuss how to permanently maintain the charming character of Laguna Beach, not just for the next five to 10 years, but permanently – that’s my visionary goal,” he said.
For his part, Whalen would like to experiment with restricting lower Forest Avenue to pedestrian use for select periods, “to see if it works.”
Parking and circulation will remain a top concern of residents in the coming year, and one that will be exacerbated by the explosion of Irvine housing developments near Laguna Canyon Road, Pearson said.
Public safety in various forms carried particular weight with Council members.
With the 20th anniversary of the 1993 fire as a backdrop, Whalen highlighted the Council’s decision to expand fuel modification zones and develop a defensible space ordinance.
Pearson said that more dollars were budgeted last year for public safety, citing measures such as an increased police foot patrol downtown, the installation of video cameras in trouble spots, a new fire engine and wave runners for the lifeguards, as well as an effective Disaster Preparedness Committee.
Looking forward, Iseman sees accelerating the undergrounding of utility poles as a key safety issue, calling for “immediate focus” on the poles in Laguna Canyon.
In reviewing infrastructure upgrades achieved in 2013, Kelly Boyd cited construction of a new lifeguard headquarters, swapping out old parking meters for ones that accept credit cards, and securing a grant to increase trolley service on off-season weekends.
Looking ahead, “I hope the view ordinance, which is my baby, gets passed,” said Boyd, who established a view committee last February. Its hearings drew impassioned testimony and a draft ordinance is expected to come under Council scrutiny early in the year.
Dicterow and Iseman predict the view ordinance as a hot issue in 2014.
“A solution must be forged that restores views but doesn’t result in a loss of valued trees,” Iseman said, suggesting that the city set an example of proper tree maintenance.
But as anyone who has followed the letters to the editor in the local press must surely know, that solution may be hard to come by.