Year in Review: Top Stories of 2019

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The following is a compilation of stories that made headlines in Laguna Beach in 2019.

January

Big news came for the long-shuttered Hotel Laguna, with the announcement of the hotel’s acquisition and renovation by the Laguna Beach Company, headed by local developer Mo Honarkar.

After years of planning a tribute to Laguna icon Skipper Carrillo, a life-size statue was unveiled at a homecoming ceremony on Jan. 20 at Forest & Ocean Gallery.

A contingent of Laguna Beach city officials toured the town of Paradise on Jan. 23 to witness the devastation caused by the Camp Fire and to learn how the city might better prevent and react to its next wildfire.

 

February

The City Council identified its top priorities in 2019. A majority of Council members agreed on four items: Streamline and improve customer satisfaction with the community development process; review major construction projects such as the remodel of Hotel Laguna, the Cleo Hotel, a new iteration of the Coast Inn, and the Heisler site project on North Coast Highway; adopt the Downtown Specific Plan; and implement recommendations from the Council subcommittee on how to better prevent, suppress, and evacuate from wildfires.

A group of Laguna Beach residents called for LBUSD board member Dee Perry to have her turn as president of the board—a position she was denied during a Dec. 11 reorganization meeting.

 

March

LBPD credited good staffing levels and stepped-up patrols of city beaches for bringing the city’s crime rates to the lowest on record in 2018.

Laguna took a step forward in reforming its controversial historic preservation ordinance, including the abandonment of the city’s unique rating system and instead using statewide standards.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center saw triple the number of sea lion and elephant seal rescues compared to the same time the previous year, and responded to 12 dolphin strandings as of February.

After denying LBUSD board member Dee Perry her turn as president, the board cast a majority vote on March 12 to delete the rotation policy for president.

 

April

The Council agreed to spend more than $1.61 million over the next five years to install and advertise a smart parking system that allows drivers to find and pay for open parking spaces via a mobile app. In May, the city started installing sensors to launch the system.

The Council voted to convert Ocean Avenue into a one-way street between Coast Highway and Beach Street in spring 2020.

The City Council voted on April 16 to reaffirm LBPD’s new black and white patrol cars with an American flag design.

Laguna police cars kept their stars and stripes following a whirlwind of national media attention about a group of residents who expressed discomfort with displaying the patriotic graphic.

The Council agreed to continue its ban on new short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods, but also grandfathered permits for 38 homeowners who are currently licensed to market their homes on Airbnb and VRBO.

The City Council approved an agreement in July with Mo Honarkar’s Laguna Beach Company that outlines the review of six major developments, including the renovation of Hotel Laguna. Photo by Allison Jarrell.

The Council created a subcommittee to advise city staffers on how to extract fees from the Laguna Beach Company’s six proposed building projects: the rehabilitation of the Hotel Laguna; construction of the Cleo Hotel; redevelopment of the central bluffs south of Hotel Laguna; redevelopment of the Hive and Art-a-Fair; Heisler Landing; and a low-density residential project at Canyon Acres Drive and Laguna Canyon Road. In July, the Council approved an agreement with Mo Honarkar’s company that outlines the review of the six projects.

 

May

A proposal to convert 15 studio apartments, which served low-income seniors for 30 years, to market-rate housing was approved by the Planning Commission, marking a loss for downtown Laguna’s affordable housing stock.

Mayor Bob Whalen expressed his concern about the lack of civility exhibited at recent Council meetings during the State of the City luncheon on May 2.

 

June

Laguna Beach City Hall displayed rainbow Pride flags in June.

After more than a year and a half of wrestling with the Coastal Commission over short-term lodging regulation, the Council sent a revised ordinance back to the state that would ban new short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.

Laguna Drug filled its last prescription to the disappointment of many long-time customers.

The Council denied an appeal of a 28-unit artist live/work project planned for Laguna Canyon and allowed it to move forward.

School board member Dee Perry was excluded from a new subcommittee created to hear personnel and litigation matters after the school district’s lawyer said she’d been leaking confidential information.

City officials announced the completion of Phase 1 of the Village Entrance. The project is slated to be completed by the summer of 2020.

The South Coast Water District approved an environmental impact report on June 27 for the proposed Doheny Desalination Facility that could provide the region with up to 5 million gallons of water per day.

 

July

A long-awaited city report was released after more than six months of work by a Council subcommittee that studied what Laguna can do to protect residents and visitors from wildfires. The Council later earmarked an additional $6.65 million to pay for wildfire protection projects outlined in the report.

In July, Wyland began recreating his original Whaling Wall on canvas in its original location, adjacent to his gallery and the Hotel Laguna. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Wyland began recreating his first ever whaling wall mural adjacent to his gallery. He unveiled the finished mural during on Sept. 19.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved designs for improvements to Coast Highway between Broadway and Legion Streets, including pedestrian scrambles at Forest and Laguna Avenues.

Jeffrey and Tracy Katz, owners of 11 Lagunita Drive, were ordered by the Coastal Commission to remove their seawall along Victoria Beach last August. An Orange County Superior Court judge upheld that cease and desist order, but the couple is appealing the decision.

An Orange County Superior Court judge upheld a cease and desist order from the Coastal Commission that required a Laguna Beach couple to remove a seawall they built to protect their oceanfront home on Victoria Beach. The wall will remain in place for now as the couple appeals the decision.

Laguna Beach residents got their first look at plans for the 118-room Museum Hotel and two alternatives for the proposed Cleo Hotel.

Edward Shin, of Irvine, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering his business partner, 33-year-old Christopher Smith of Laguna Beach, in their San Juan Capistrano office to gain control of Smith’s shares of the company.

 

August

A Laguna woman who was found dead in her mobile home by neighbors was identified by LBPD as 61-year-old Megan Estes Hampton. Hampton’s son, Matthew Bryson McDonald, 34, was charged with her murder. He pleaded not guilty in September.

The Council had a joint meeting with the DRB and created a subcommittee to brainstorm reforming the design review process.

Goats graze in an electrified pen off Loretta Drive in Arch Beach Heights on Aug. 20. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna deployed a third goat herd Aug. 15 to clear vegetation around Arch Beach Heights because of higher than average plant growth fueled by storms.

The dispute between LBUSD board member Dee Perry and the School District reached a costly landmark, following a school board vote to spend up to $50,000 for a top law firm to defend the district in future litigation. On Dec. 10, Perry filed a lawsuit in California federal court, claiming Superintendent Jason Viloria and her fellow board members violated her constitutional rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection.

An aerial view of the revised pavilion structure for the Village Entrance, designed by artist Marc Fornes. Image courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach

The Arts Commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the concept design for a shade structure in the Village Entrance proposed by sculptor Marc Fornes. Fornes later submitted a revised concept plan, and said he’s open to input as he continues working on the design.

 

September

The Council approved a decorum and civility policy Tuesday to address residents’ complaints about the troubling discourse in the Council chambers.

Laguna entered a federal civil rights lawsuit over homeless issues in September only to settle it a week later, joining a novel settlement that gives a judge power over the city for the next four years.

A split Council authorized an environmental study on demolishing the city’s old sewage digester, though the future of the building is not yet final. The Council’s 3-2 vote authorized an environmental impact report, the removal of sludge from the building, as well as an economic analysis about possibly renting the building for other uses.

 

October

Laguna joined the California State Association of Counties and 32 other cities in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appellate decision on enforcing anti-camping laws. The Supreme Court declined to review the case. Laguna’s ASL, operated by Friendship Shelter, allows Laguna police to enforce anti-camping rules on public property, which would otherwise be prohibited under Martin v. Boise.

Laguna will pursue an interjurisdictional agreement with OCSD to memorialize a long-standing pact allowing its police officers to respond to El Morro Elementary School after fielding complaints from concerned parents.

Laguna Beach received $1 million earmarked in the state budget to create additional fuel modification zones that separate homes and evacuation routes from the wildfire-prone vegetation growing in open spaces.

The 118-room Museum Hotel proposed by the Laguna Beach Company would redevelop the ocean side of North Coast Highway between Cliff Drive and Jasmine Street. Rendering courtesy of Laguna Creative Ventures.

The Planning Commission sent the Laguna Beach Company—the developer of the proposed 118-room Museum Hotel—back to the drawing board, saying the project should meet all requirements of the General Plan.

Laguna’s neighborhood trolleys will keep rolling on a modified schedule after the Council heard overwhelming support from riders who use the weekday and Saturday neighborhood transit service.

 

November

 

A memorial for Jasmen Wilkinson now sits along Laguna Canyon Road. Photo by Allison Jarrell

Jasmen Wilkinson, a 14-year-old Laguna Beach High School freshman, tragically passed away on Nov. 6 after suffering serious injuries from a car collision on Laguna Canyon Road. Hundreds of mourners attended a Celebration of Life service on Nov. 9 at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Wilkinson family agreed to donate Jasmen’s organs as a gift of life. Eight organs were transplanted and 75 patients received tissue.

Community members asked the Council to ban the deployment of 5G antennas—a non-starter because the city is preempted from taking such action under federal law. The Council asked staff to propose guidelines for where and how 5G antennas are installed based on aesthetics and the city’s wildfire risk.

LBPD added a second school resource officer following LBUSD’s vote to approve a cost-sharing agreement with the city. The city and school district now equally split the $378,000 annual compensation for Cpl. Cornelius Ashton and Officer Fred Yeilding.

After a third review of the final draft of the Downtown Specific Plan, the Planning Commission decided unanimously to recommend that the Council approve the plan.

The City Council voted to abandon three historic footpaths in the Temple Hills Neighborhood but potentially save a fourth.

The Festival of Arts is eyeing two tennis courts for future expansion, a proposal that has riled tennis advocates who say this is an attempt by private enterprise to benefit from public land.

The city hired Marc Wiener as the new Director of Community Development. Wiener is succeeding Greg Pfost, who will retire in June 2020.

The day before Thanksgiving, about 1.4 million gallons of wastewater spilled from a corroded sewer pipe valve into Aliso Creek and coastal waters, initially prompting beach closures from San Clemente to Crystal Cove. After repairing the pipe, Laguna Beach city staff are now inspecting the rest of the valves along seven miles of pipeline and making note of additional repairs that may be needed.

 

December

The City Council decided to keep its existing leadership in place for another year—Mayor Bob Whalen and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow will continue serving in their roles.

A plan to plant street trees and spruce up the streetscape in downtown Laguna Beach inched forward, providing relief to residents and business owners who’ve complained about the commercial hub’s shabby appearance.

After four years as a full-time emergency operations coordinator for the City of Laguna Beach, Jordan Villwock is moving on to a position as chief of staff for the Ontario Fire Department.

Laguna Beach residents and business owners remain deeply divided over what their downtown should look like in 10 years.

The LBUSD board reorganized on Dec. 17, electing Peggy Wolff as president and Carol Normandin as clerk. The board also voted to switch from meeting on Tuesday nights to Thursday nights.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the year in review Allison. I also want to thank every Laguna Beach resident (individuals or group representatives) who stepped up vocalizing their opinions and sharing their research to make our city government and council members accountable and ultimately our community better. 2020 is going to be a lively election year! Beware of Development PAC financial interests and influences. Stay active and involved. Happy New Year Laguna!

  2. Beware of the fearmongering and obstructionism of the Village Laguna and Laguna Residents First PACs! Since when does “Letters to the Editor” and biased weekly columns count as fact?

    I’m sure MJ already has her anti-growth and progress candidate warming up the bench and ready to fight with unverified data and statistics. For now LRF claims they are nonpartisan, $100 bucks says they break that rule the moment an anti-Mo candidate submits his/her paperwork for the November election. As a registered democrat I am baffled that this level of hate and racism is being spun by members of my own political party. It seems only white developers with an affinity towards cheesy craftsman design are accepted in Laguna, all others not welcome. Thus it pains me to say RIP Laguna Beach, 1927-2020.

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