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City moves forward with acquiring South Laguna property as possible future fire station


City Council decided last week to move forward with acquiring property in South Laguna for future civic uses, including as a replacement for the neighborhood’s local fire station. 

In a split 3-2 vote on June 15, council authorized the city manager to enter into an agreement with Rincon Consultants Inc. in the amount of $89,199 to provide consulting services for the preparation of an initial study for the acquisition of 31727 Coast Highway and for a possible Mitigated Negative Declaration, if determined to be appropriate. Council members Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented. 

The city has entered into escrow to acquire the property at 31727 Coast Highway, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone. The city has offered $2.7 million.

A preliminary look shows a lot of things that could work there, said Laguna Beach Fire Department Chief Mike Garcia.

“In a nutshell, we do think that there is a possibility…that it can be used for a fire station and be functional,” although there are some issues they need to overcome, Garcia said. “We need to go further to clarify all those (issues).” 

That’s what the initial study will do, he added.

Staff has been looking at South Laguna sites for well over a year, exhaustively looking at alternative properties, a few council members pointed out. 

“We’re not looking for a public site here, we’re looking for a fire station because we need a fire station,” said Councilmember Peter Blake. “We have people in South Laguna that are not served right now, and we have a community that is at risk for fire.”

The current #4 fire station for the area is located at 31646 2nd Ave.

City moves forward Ti Amo

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city has entered into escrow to acquire the property at 31727 Coast Highway, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone

At the same time, Tuesday’s vote approved transferring an appropriation of $37,000 from project savings in the 31526 and 31532 Coast Highway (at the intersection of Catalina Avenue) environmental analysis project to this project.

Council had also directed staff to cease efforts to obtain the other two South Laguna parcels, for which the city had previously offered $1.7 million and had entered into escrow with the owner last February.

“The decision to withdraw from the transaction was due primarily to a complication with the property ownership that prevented the person who signed the escrow documents to convey free and clear title,” the staff report explains. 

It wasn’t just a title issue, Whalen confirmed; the owner was no longer willing to sell for that amount, they wanted a higher amount.

In a separate vote on Tuesday, council unanimously agreed to direct staff to investigate the potential viability (but not via eminent domain) of a site on 5th Avenue as a future fire station. The referenced parcel is an empty lot at the corner of 5th and PCH.

They are on record that they’d never do eminent domain, Iseman commented.

“But if there was ever a need and a location that made that much sense,” this is it, Iseman said. “I think we should go after 5th.”

Other council members weren’t so sure they wanted to take that step.

If there was a property owner that was willing to have a “friendly condemnation” process of some sort, that could be considered, said Mayor Bob Whalen. 

“Exercising eminent domain is a step I don’t think we’ve taken as a city very often or, in my experience and time here, never,” Whalen said. “That’s a difficult one.”

Council has been reluctant to talk about exercising eminent domain on a private property owner, unwillingly, Whalen said. 

“The thought of eminent domain has never sat well with me, you don’t just take somebody’s property away,” Blake agreed.

The idea of eminent domain or utilizing the condemnation process was brought up during public comment.

Longtime resident, former LB firefighter, and experienced land planner professional Brian Menne suggested looking into the 5th Avenue property.

It’s one of the best sites in the city, he said. He tried to contact the property owner many years ago for another project, but the person never responded. The owner never wanted to do anything with the parcel, Menne said. 

City moves forward 5th Ave

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Council voted to examine the viability of a site at 5th Avenue and Coast Highway for a possible future fire station

The 5th Avenue site offers what they should be looking for, he continued, something similar to the fire station property on Agate Street, with drive-through potential, no interference, and no view blockage.

“I think you should go through condemnation process and try and get that piece of property,” on 5th, Menne said. “Get the piece you need.”

The Ti Amo location doesn’t have drive-through potential, he said.

“It’s not going to be a convenient site to build on,” Menne concluded. “Hold out for a site that would work, like 5th Avenue.”

Resident John Thomas suggested the council members visit the Ti Amo site in person.

“See for yourself how difficult it would be to make a fire station work on that site,” Thomas said. “It will require a lot of compromises to force a fire station onto that site.”

He asked them to look into the 5th Avenue parcel, which he believes is a much better site for a fire station.

“My second suggestion is that you use eminent domain to acquire the 5th Avenue site,” Thomas said. “The owner will be guaranteed a fair price and the community will be far better off with a facility that can be accommodated on that site.”

Everyone agrees that fire safety is important, he said, and the community would benefit from better fire equipment and facilities

“So, it is completely appropriate to use eminent domain for this purpose,” Thomas said. 

If the council members are uncomfortable with making the decision to use eminent domain, Thomas recommended asking the community if residents would support the action in order to put a fire station there. 

“It seems like we’re forcing a decision between buying an inferior site quickly or perhaps taking a little bit more time and arranging for a much better site,” he said.

Most speakers opposed the idea of using the Ti Amo property as a potential new fire station. They raised concerns about no drive-through capabilities, impact on the neighbors, exiting onto the highway, and safety issues. Others didn’t want to see the restaurant use be taken away.

Although one speaker was in favor of moving forward, the specific site wasn’t the primary reason.

Risk of fire is extremely high, and the threat level is escalating, said Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee Chair Matt Lawson. It’s an overwhelming public safety need, he said.

“There is an urgent need to move forward with this,” Lawson said. 

While he doesn’t live in the neighborhood and hasn’t studied the issue, he has confidence in the fire department that they know what type of site would work and have the ability to locate the best choice within the realm of possibilities. They haven’t built a new fire station in Laguna Beach in decades.

“I don’t know whether one site is superior for a fire station versus another,” Lawson said. “We need to get on with it. We cannot allow the ideal to become the greatest enemy of the good.”

City moves forward fire station

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The current fire station #4 in South Laguna

Although the majority of the public speakers opposed using the Ti Amo site for a fire station, many of their concerns would be scrutinized during the initial study process, council members pointed out.

“We’ve heard a number of comments tonight, obviously, about the adequacy or inadequacy of this site for fire station use, which is only one of the potential uses we’re addressing,” Whalen said, asking about the initial examination on the site.

In the preliminary analysis, staff believes it is a suitable site for fire station use, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said. The fire trucks will not be using the same driveway as residents for access, she said, there would be a separate driveway made for fire vehicle access with a dedicated light. 

It can also be built as a two-story building (versus only one allowed at the Catalina site).

“I don’t discount anything our community is saying,” but there are a lot of things to consider, Garcia said. “Every lot we’ve looked at in South Laguna has had challenges.”

Reviewing where current fire stations are being built, rarely are they on less than half an acre. Subtle inclines or declines at the street affect the angle of departure of the fire department’s rig that dictate if it can actually leave the property or if they can build an apparatus bay for it. He’d rather have the apparatus depart onto a side street, not the highway. Some sites have restrictions regarding employee parking.

If the consultant comes back and reports that it’s not viable space, then the city can rent or sell the property. Whalen supported moving forward with the study of the Coast Highway property and to preserve their right to close. 

“Whether it goes in a different direction, or somebody magically can strike a deal for another site that’s better,” that’s to be seen, he said. 

There is no site they could pick that everyone would agree on, Whalen noted. There is no perfect parcel. This is an adequate site, he concluded. 

The consultant has to go through a series of analyses for all of the environmental factors, and then it would go through a public hearing process, including accepting and addressing comments, Dupuis explained. 

The final document would return to council for certification and adoption, she said.

The city has three months to do due diligence and has to close by September 5, Dupuis explained. The environmental document has to be certified by August 24.

If not used for a fire station, the site can be used for any public serving purposes, which is what the environmental document will study, Dupuis explained.

That’s a bit vague for such a pricey property, Weiss said. Any public use could mean a number of services or projects, he said.

At $2.7 million, it’s an expensive site that, as far as they know right now, could possibly hold a functional fire station, but it’s still unclear, Weiss said. 

“I’m a little bit weary,” that we might be moving too fast on this site, Weiss said. “We have to do it right.”


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