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City one step closer to acquiring South Laguna Ti Amo property for future public use


The process of acquiring property in South Laguna for future civic uses, including as a possible replacement for the neighborhood’s local fire station, moved forward this week as a city board unanimously agreed that potential public benefit use is consistent with Laguna Beach code. 

The Planning Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday (August 4) to approve city staff’s recommended general plan consistency determination for 31727 and 31735 Coast Highway.

In a split 3-2 vote on June 15, City 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. Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented. 

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

City one step Ti Amo property

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city is working on acquiring the property at 31727 PCH, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone

Pursuant to City Council direction, staff has been working with the property owner to acquire the South Laguna properties. While the city might ultimately determine to utilize the property for replacing fire station #4 and/or other public-serving amenities, a use decision will not be made until later. The current #4 fire station for the area is located at 31646 2nd Ave.

Most of Wednesday’s discussion centered around the clarification that the commission was only affirming GP consistency for possible future public benefit use, and not a specific use (such as a fire station).

“There are questions about ultimate use, but the whole point of the action at this time isn’t to address that and there will be opportunities to address it at a later date,” said Commissioner Steven Kellenberg. 

His fellow commissioners tended to agree and separated the actions during the discussion.

“I support the recommended action [of consistency approval] and the purchase of this property, period,” Susan Whitin said.

Chair Steven Goldman clarified that the commission was tasked with determining the general plan consistency, assuming it will be used for a use that is consistent with the general plan, and that staff will return at a later date when that use is actually determined.

Jeremy Frimond, senior management analyst in the city manager’s office, said it’s a nuanced process.

“The scope of this evening is a general plan consistency finding,” Frimond said. “Right now, this project is in the acquisition phase.”

Once acquired, if the property is acquired, it will then go into the specific uses portion.

Frimond clarified that the city can acquire land for certain purposes.

“It’s not selected, it’s not formalized,” he said. “In this case, while not selected and formalized – that still is up to the City Council – there was a conversation and there is a general understanding of what the city is looking to purchase in South Laguna.”

Given that information and based on the city attorney’s evaluation, it triggered an analysis for a variety of uses. The environmental review currently underway assesses the properties for an array of public use concepts, Frimond explained. 

Frimond emphasized that they are just concepts for public use, the study is “not necessarily assigning a use to it.”

None of the conceptual uses that are being assessed are inconsistent, confirmed Planning Manager Scott Drapkin. 

Commission Jorg Dubin questioned what the other possible public benefit uses could be developed beyond a fire station, if that – theoretically – is what the council would approve acquisition for and then it was later determined to not be an appropriate use. 

“Ultimately, they’re going to own this expensive piece of property,” Dubin said. 

Parallel to the possible fire station use, they are studying public parking, a park, and restrooms, Frimond confirmed. 

“So yes, there are other uses,” he said. 

Considering previous discussions on the property and the search for a new fire department location in South Laguna, it’s difficult not to think of it with the fire station in mind, said Commissioner Ken Sadler. Although “public use” could also be a community garden or park, among other ideas. 

“It’s hard not to kind of get ahead of ourselves, knowing what we know about previous discussions that have happened regarding the possibilities for this,” Sadler said, but it could be a number of concepts, “I’m glad you’re looking at different options.”

City one step Fire Station 4

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The current fire station #4 in South Laguna

There are provisions within the municipal code that define uses within commercial areas, Frimond clarified, and staff would need to make findings based on those specific uses if they are permitted. Uses would be reviewed at a later date to determine if a conditional use permit would be needed. 

If council later approves purchasing the property and then assigns a use, staff would return with a project plan for consideration.

The project site encompasses approximately 0.23 acre (9,975 square feet) and includes two parcels, one developed and an adjacent parking lot.

The properties have a general plan land use designation of local business/professional, which provides for a mixture of limited commercial development, office-professional uses, and mixed-use residential development to serve the needs of the local population.

The South Laguna Village zone permits trade services, office, and retail uses. An institutional or public benefit use would be allowed with a conditional use permit (after a public hearing) if it’s found to be consistent with the intent and purpose of the zoning district and similar to and no more obnoxious or detrimental to the public health, safety, and welfare than other permitted uses. 

The location of the property acquisition is consistent with the city’s land use element action 6.7.1 which states to “continue and enhance the city policy of purchasing land for public uses through budgeted open-space acquisition funds, tax sales, and other opportunities such as donations and grants.” 

“The general plan states that the city should pursue opportunities for public use,” Frimond said. 

Staff’s analysis indicates that the site is “well-suited” for public use, Frimond said, based on the criteria that it’s adjacent to Coast Highway, is buildable, and zoned SLV.

There seems to be some conflict and ambiguity between the allowed land uses, Dubin pointed out, in terms of the potential use if the city decides to acquire the property for a fire station.

That’s a valid concern, Frimond noted. 

“What we looked at as we were conducting our analysis is ‘What’s the intent?’ The intent is to purchase for public use,” which is within the purview of the 6.7 policy, Frimond said. 

They then considered if there was anything in the policy that would prohibit the city from purchasing the land for public benefit. 

“There’s nothing that really eliminates this acquisition or says strictly, defines, or sets parameters not to move forward with this acquisition,” Frimond said. 

The scope is limited, at this stage of acquiring the land, to possible public benefit or future public use, Frimond reiterated. 

The only public speaker was resident Sonny Myers, a member of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee. He urged the commission to approve the item.

“The City of Laguna Beach has a limited amount of public buildings and spaces that are allocated for public use and moving forward with the acquisition of this property will be a benefit to the residents of South Laguna and, eventually, I would imagine all of Laguna Beach,” Myers said. 

Having a community center or whatever is ultimately decided to be developed on the property is a separate issue, he noted, but the first step needs to be taken to acquire the property.


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