Coronavirus Delays Ballot Initiative Efforts That Would Give Residents a Voice in Large-Scale Projects

By Erika I. Ritchie | eritchie@scng.com | Orange County Register

PUBLISHED: March 18, 2020 at 1:17 p.m.

Plans to develop large-scale and, in some cases, block-long projects in Laguna Beach have prompted a community group to push for voters to have a say about major commercial developments.

On Friday, March 6, Laguna Residents First presented a “letter of intent” to City Hall for a ballot initiative that could result in local voters having oversight over whether large commercial developments go forward. On Wednesday, March 17, however, the group withdrew its initiative citing the spread of coronavirus.

“Laguna Residents First has reluctantly decided to withdraw our ballot initiative due to the coronavirus outbreak,” said George Weiss, one of the three founders of a group dedicated to the preservation of Laguna’s unique charm. “We determined that the safety of our signature gatherers and those signing would be at risk if we gather signatures in April.”

Weiss said the group will wait until the pandemic has subsided and then resubmit the ballot initiative. At that point, the group would have six months to gather signatures.

If voted into law, the initiative would not deter new projects, the group says, but would make sure the city’s building guidelines and zoning laws — which set parameters on scale, size and density of projects — are maintained. It would establish an ordinance whereby a majority of Laguna voters would determine what projects are developed and that changes to land-use must be approved by a majority of residents.

The ordinance would provide the same protection, the group says, that residents in many California cities are using to better manage the redevelopment of commercial districts in their towns. That includes measures such as those in Costa Mesa that passed with 67% of the vote in 2016 and Newport Beach’s Greenlight Initiative, a slow-growth initiative approved by 63.4% of the city’s voters in 2000.

The Laguna Residents First proposal defines major commercial projects as commercial development or redevelopment projects, or residential development or redevelopment projects with 10 or more residential units. Negative impacts of such developments, the group says, could include generating 200 or more average daily trips; lack of adequate parking; and a cumulative large-scale effect.

“We want voters to decide on (these) developments and their impacts on residents, neighborhoods and the environment,” said George Weiss, who with Mike Morris and David Raber formed Laguna Residents First. “We’re not opposed to development, we just want it in the framework that already exists in the city.”

The proposal calls for future development in town to be unique, that resident impacts be considered and that the development preserves the aesthetic value of the town.

Plans for the initiative were prompted about a year ago, with a community summit on development that included about a dozen community groups such as Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization and the South Laguna Civic Association.

“We had indications that there was a lot of new development planned in town,” Weiss said. “We thought blocklong developments didn’t fit into Laguna.”

Key to his and others’ concerns was a proposal by the Laguna Beach Company — which has plans to renovate Hotel Laguna and much of the block near the iconic structure — to pay $250,000 to help the city’s Community Development Department with work needed to push through their projects.

The City Council rejected the idea, but the suggestion concerned local groups focused on preserving the town’s charm.

“We talked about issues facing the city such as development that could impact preservation,” Weiss said. “Out of that came an advisory group and from that came the effort to create a ballot initiative.”

Two projects from the Laguna Beach Company — the remodel of Hotel Laguna and associated developments, and the proposed Museum Hotel across from the Laguna Art Museum — would exceed the limits of existing zoning and violates the spirit of the city’s general plan, Weiss said.

Alternatively, he pointed to projects such as the Montage, which took nine years to get through city and state processes and ultimately was approved by voters in a referendum.

The resort, on South Coast Highway, replaced a mobile home park after going through a nearly two-year review by the Planning Commission before being approved by the City Council with a 4-1 vote.

“We want voters to be able to vote yes or no,” Weiss said. “The Montage turned out to be a great project.”

With the resort’s approval, residents and visitors now have beach access to an area that previously was private, and a public park.

Sam Goldstein, who owns the Heisler building in Laguna’s downtown, criticized the ballot initiative efforts.

“I think it’s in keeping with Village Laguna and what’s happened since 1974,” he said. “They’re adamant in the belief that the community should die and go into oblivion. They have a fixation on less is better.”

Rather, he said, building designs are made to change with input from bodies elected to positions to make those decisions.

“I’ve been here for 45 years and I find their regressive behavior beyond retention,” he said. “It’s a joke.”

Goldstein used as an example the Coast Inn, which for years has been kept from moving ahead with renovation plans because of opposition from neighbors concerned about its affect on parking and the neighborhood.

In response to the initiative effort, the Laguna Beach Co., which is operated by local residents Mo Honarkar and his daughter, Hasty Honarkar, stressed their appreciation for the beauty and charm of Laguna and said their development company aims to beautify distressed areas in town.

 “At this time, our team is reviewing the proposed ballot initiative brought forth by the Laguna Resident’s First PAC and their associated PAC, Village Laguna,” the company said in a statement. “While we do not believe they represent the majority of Lagunans, we will continue to engage with their organizations, as well as the many other groups across Laguna Beach, to establish the best possible outcome for all residents.”

Once the ballot summary is prepared and delivered to the city clerk, Laguna Residents First must publish the notice of intent, ballot title and summary in a local newspaper and provide an affidavit of publication.

At that point, Weiss said, they will have sis months to collect signatures from at least 10% of the city’s registered voters — or at least 1,726 verified signatures — to qualify, said City Clerk Lisette Chel-Walker.

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