Village Matters

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By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

Ever have a dream of being a struggling passenger cast overboard in a stormy sea, frantically trying to grasp the edges of a lifeboat—only to have someone already aboard push your hands back over the edge? That’s the position Laguna seems to be in as we strive to preserve the Laguna character we all love, amidst the sea of increasing pressures–rising housing prices, mounting traffic, and intensifying tourist impacts.

It seems that decision makers outside Laguna don’t want us to be “unique and special.” They continue to pass dictums that put additional burdens on our fragile community that if not countermanded will make us more and more like the vast monotonous expanse that is urban California. They dictate damaging one-size-fits-all solutions to statewide problems onto our city already struggling to maintain its character and sense of community.

It starts with federal mandates for cell phone towers and equipment installations; we can’t say no. Then there are state mandates requiring approvals for care homes, sober-living homes, and now accessory dwelling units (apartments added to single family homes). These mandates remove controls and reviews that the city usually has through the planning commission and design review. These problematic uses receive blanket or expedited approvals, leaving the neighbors and city to deal with the impacts without conditions of approval or enforcement tools.

“We want you to help us keep Laguna Beach special,” pleaded City Manager John Pietig last week, while urging the Coastal Commission to approve Laguna’s short-term lodging ordinance that would not allow more short term lodging permits in residential areas.

Representatives of the short term lodging websites and property owners who rent or want to rent their houses or rooms short term (less than 30 days) of course spoke against the city’s ordinance. But the commission heard the pleas of many residents concerned about degrading our neighborhoods into motel/party time environments and the loss of affordable housing. People with “ordinary incomes” are being evicted from their homes so that landlords can rent their units short term.  This is terrible for the health of our community.

It’s important to not exacerbate the affordable housing deficit that already exists so that we can continue to have a fully functioning town that provides for a range of income levels. Laguna Beach should be a place of respite, a genuine small town, not a canned experience showing hints of a town that used to be.

If our housing is turned into short term lodging it will be less and less possible for a true community to survive in Laguna Beach and the visitors will notice. “Laguna Beach isn’t what it used to be,” they say. “I liked it when it was more down to earth.”  Our visitors will be deprived of an important experience, feeling part of a town where individuals can make a difference, be creative, be themselves. Because the artists and others who contribute to that atmosphere and the workings of our town will be gradually forced out.  Conversion of housing to short-term lodging is an important cause of this exodus.

Despite several commissioners’ statements in support of protecting the character of coastal communities, overall the commission weighed in on the other side by voting against the city’s ordinance. With that there will be more impacts for Laguna and its residents to deal with as more permits for short term lodging within the neighborhoods are allowed.

In not appreciating our history, how our unique and beautiful landscape sets the scene for how our community was formed and sees itself, and not acknowledging that the desirability of Laguna as a tourist destination is due to the work of our citizens to foster the arts, promote education, provide social services, protect our coast and greenbelt, and provide public parks and recreation opportunities, these imposed mandates are killing the soul of what makes Laguna special. Will someone send us a lifeline?

 

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and city council member. She has been a community volunteer since 1971, and is involved with Village Laguna and South Laguna Civic Association among others.

 

 

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