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Council set to oppose ballot measures, hold special meeting on ordinance regulating large development

By SARA HALL

Laguna Beach City Council will officially oppose three local measures on the November ballot following several votes this week on the initiatives aimed at curbing large development and increasing hotel worker wage.

Council will return with the resolutions at the July 19 meeting to designate authors for ballot arguments.

A majority of councilmembers voted to oppose all three of the initiatives on Tuesday (July 12). Although the lineup for each vote was different.

Council unanimously agreed to oppose the hotel development overlay initiative regarding land use. UNITE HERE Local 11 union, which represents Southern California hospitality workers, is the proponent of the initiative, titled: “An Ordinance Creating a Hotel Development Overlay Zoning District and Requiring Voter Approval of Hotel Development Projects.”

The measure would, among other things, require every hotel development within 1,000 feet of the centerline of Coast Highway or State Route 133, to comply with specified development standards and, if not in compliance, seek a variance from the council and obtain approval from the voters at a special or regular election.

On Tuesday, the second motion to oppose the hotel worker wage and workplace conditions was nearly undivided, with Councilmember George Weiss abstaining in a 4-0-1 vote. 

Also backed by the UNITE HERE Local 11 union, the initiative is titled “An Ordinance Amending the Laguna Beach Municipal Code to Create a Minimum Wage and Workplace Standards and Protections for Hotel Employees.”

The measure would, among other things, require hotel owners and operators to provide hotel employees a minimum wage of $18 per hour beginning 60 days after the effective date of the ordinance and increasing by $1 per hour each year beginning January 1, 2023, until 2026.

On May 10, council unanimously decided to send the two union-backed initiatives to the ballot for voters to decide in November.

In the third vote on Tuesday, the council was split 3-2 on the motion to oppose the Laguna Residents First PAC proposed initiative. Weiss and Councilmember Toni Iseman dissented. 

The LRF initiative, titled “An ordinance creating an overlay zoning district and requiring voter approval of major development projects,” seeks to create an overlay zone that covers all property in the city located within 750 feet of the centerline of either Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon, which effectively encompasses 51% of all parcels in the city.

The LRF initiative is “excellent” and was created though many hours of work, Weiss said. It addresses over-intensification and the parking giveaways that have occurred over time. It also puts a stop to the larger developments that maybe haven’t been built yet, but “want to be,” he said, noting a few examples. 

Council set to oppose Coast Inn

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council voted to oppose a ballot initiative aimed at hotel development

Mayor Pro Tem Whalen made the motion to direct staff to prepare resolutions to oppose all three measures. 

There are flaws that outweigh the benefits with the LRF initiative, he added. There are some shared core values included in the underlying goal of the measure, but the language is over-reaching and could have unintended consequences on smaller projects. 

Regarding the union-backed hotel development overlay zoning district, Whalen cautioned against “ballot box land use planning.” There are other processes and oversight in place that work well, he added. 

He went back and forth on the hotel worker wage proposal because employees should be paid a fair wage and have safe workplace standards. Although he’s heard nothing to the contrary, Whalen noted. It’s an initiative in search of a problem that doesn’t exist in Laguna Beach, he said. 

A handful of residents spoke during public comment on the item, all opposed to the proposed measures and many were local hotel leaders. Resort owners and general managers called the two union-backed initiatives “anti-hospitality” measures. They emphasized that the union has come from out of town and that they aren’t working in the best interest of Laguna Beach. Several agreed that the measures would have a negative impact on the hotel industry and the community. 

Mark Christy, managing partner of The Ranch, said the measures threaten what they know and love about Laguna Beach now and in the future. They threaten the goal of keeping Lagna real and local, he added. 

Referencing the worker wage initiative, Christy said they treat their employees like family. Non-tipped positions start at $19 per hour, he pointed out.

Council set to oppose ordinance

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council will hold a special meeting on July 26 to discuss the staff-recommended ordinance

Earlier, in the same discussion item, council unanimously agreed to postpone action on a staff recommended ordinance pertaining to the regulation of building height, mass, and bulk in the commercial districts and development of a parking master plan. 

Mayor Sue Kempf suggested holding a special meeting to discuss the issue on July 26. 

Given the community interest in the item, she wanted to provide more time for discussion, Kempf explained her reason for suggesting a special meeting.

“To provide more time for people to talk on these issues and see if we can come up with some good ideas,” Kempf said. 

At the special meeting, council could decide to introduce the ordinance, which modifies the development standards in the commercial zoning districts, or send the proposed ordinance, with or without modifications, to the November ballot as an alternative initiative.

The ordinance item stemmed from the recent ballot initiatives tackling the same issues.

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On February 15, City Council unanimously decided to send the proposed LRF initiative from Laguna Residents First, unaltered, to the voters on the November ballot. 

During a second, separate motion a 4-1 majority of councilmembers (Councilmember George Weiss dissented) supported directing city staff to study possible ballot measure alternatives to address some of the concerns the initiative raises. The action also directed staff to return with zoning provisions addressing height, mass, scale/bulk and parking.

Staff returned to council on April 12 with land use and parking provisions to be considered for development of a future ordinance and/or an alternative ballot measure. Council voted 3-1-1, with Iseman dissenting and Weiss abstaining.

The Planning Commission unanimously voted on June 15 to recommend that the City Council adopt the ordinance with some of their own suggested modifications. 

At the June meeting, planning commissioners discussed what the standards should be for development in the nearby “buffer” zone around downtown. Staff also suggested certain standards apply to developments on sites that are 15,000 square feet or larger that aim to avoid the appearance of a single large project. After quite a bit of back and forth, planning commissioners also recommended that the maximum length of any individual building street frontage shall be 125 feet. 

After nearly two hours of discussion, planning commissioners made several other specific suggestions: 

–Inclusion of public art under required public right-of-way improvements.

–The minimum 10% courtyard space (on projects 15,000 square feet or larger) is mandatory with no provision allowing a reduction of the amount.

–For projects 15,000 square feet or larger, include a design standard that subterranean parking be primarily below grade and that surface parking lots be screen from public view and located behind the building to the extent feasible.

They also directed staff to clarify the language noting that rooftop equipment should be set back and adequately screened from public view from the immediate sidewalk area.

City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance on April 26 related to building height allowances for commercial structures that provide subterranean parking facilities. The Planning Commission previously reviewed the ordinance and agreed that there should be options for the developer, without being too restrictive, while still maintaining the character of the community and the retail streetscape.

On Tuesday, a few public speakers said the staff recommended ordinance, if sent to the ballot, competes with the LRF initiative, which several argued does a better job addressing resident concerns. 

The ordinance doesn’t protect the village character of the town, said resident and Village Laguna President Anne Caenn. The over-development that residents are concerned about includes parking, traffic, cumulative implications of intensification of use, and scale and aesthetics, she added.

Although not all public speakers opposed the ordinance. Resident Tom Gibbs pointed out a few flaws in the LRF measure, including that it doesn’t distinguish between public and private development projects and could therefore negatively impact much-needed public projects, like a new fire station. The staff recommended ordinance focuses on the key issues of height, mass and bulk, he noted. It does need some tweaking, Gibbs added, and public input on July 26 will help improve it.

It’s a great proposed ordinance, Councilmember Peter Blake noted, and it gives perspective to an issue that’s been blown out of proportion. Nobody on the council has any intention of exceeding the 36-foot height limit already in place, he added, which is what some people have exaggerated they are “chomping at the bit” to do.

There have been discussions in the community both for and against the ordinance, councilmembers pointed out. 

“I think what’s driving a lot of this is apparently there are conversations – I haven’t been a party to them – in the community amongst some of the proponents of the initiative and others who, in the community, don’t favor the initiative. I think that’s healthy conversation and dialogue and maybe it will lead to something and a better articulation of this ordinance,” Whalen said.

When they discuss it at the special meeting there are issues that need to be addressed, he added. It’s going to give opportunity to people to speak out, clarify concerns and provide input.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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