Hansen: Laguna Beach has a way of killing hope and art

Some time ago, a whale inadvertently got caught in the nets of a Massachusetts fisherman, who immediately worked to free the struggling mammal. Eventually, the fisherman was able to untangle the whale, which swam away unharmed.

The fisherman, of course, felt better about himself because now he could tell a whale of a story.

That is until a U.S. District Court fined the fisherman $500 because what he should have done, the court said, was call official wildlife authorities and have them do it. Of course the whale would have probably died by the time they arrived, but that's beside the point.

I mention this story because it reminds me of something that the Laguna Beach Planning Commission recently did: penalized someone for doing the right thing, then justified it with heavy-handed bureaucracy.

Here's what happened:

About two years ago, Melissa Martinez opened a marketing consulting business, Pelt Inc., at 305 N. Coast Hwy., across the street from the Laguna Art Museum in a small, second-story office.

Martinez doesn't really need to advertise her business with traditional signage because she's busy enough as it is, she said. But she does have this bare office window, and one day she felt a little creative.

So on Dec. 17, 2015, she put up a modest sign — using a changeable display — that said, "Today is the present, tomorrow is the gift."

Martinez went on to rotate the sayings about once a month or so. They were never political or controversial. She just posted what she believed were thoughtful quotes by artists, thinkers and creatives like Henry Miller, Buckminster Fuller, Albert Einstein and others.

Essentially, she tried to tap into Laguna's artistic zeitgeist in order to give back something to the community.

"For me it was just a way to put some positive things out in the world," Martinez said. "They were mostly about art but also work ethic and drive and little pick-me-ups."

Ironically, however, an artist complained. Downstairs is Virga Gallery, owned by husband and wife team Roger Cantrell and Virga Siauciunaite. They thought the sign was inappropriate and complained to the city.

"It is hard to imagine that an upscale community such as Laguna Beach, with its unparalleled history and reputation as a prestigious retail destination focused on art, would allow such signage in any location," Cantrell wrote to the city.

Cantrell cited several concerns, including the possibility of distracting drivers and sowing confusion over who owned the sign because of its proximity to the gallery.

The city was obligated to respond to the complaint and told Martinez she had to go through proper channels and get a sign permit. After several months of paperwork and negotiations, Martinez found herself in front of the Planning Commission on March 1.

By this time, the city had assigned the case to assistant planner Anthony Viera, who felt comfortable with the conditions and recommended the sign be approved.

But the commissioners thought otherwise.

In a remarkable display of disdain, they basically ripped into the project, calling it inappropriate and a waste of their time.

One commissioner called the sign's quotes "tired aphorisms."

What's interesting is that in my experience, author Henry Miller's writings — his ground-breaking and provocative literature banned in its day — were never described as "tired aphorisms."

Other commissioners piled on, saying they worried about setting a precedent, opening the doors to every other business posting sayings. Another said the sayings could promote a dangerous philosophy.

It became clear there was a witch hunt underway, and it would be best to kill the witch now, so to speak, before she could cast her evil spells.

So they unanimously denied permission, 5 to 0.

Martinez was stunned. In her mind it was just a little sign with cool sayings.

"Laguna Beach calls itself an arts town, but you do anything out of the norm and they don't like it," she said afterward. "I didn't expect that all five of them would turn me down in such a violent way. It was a learning experience, definitely. I got to see up close and personal the bad part of our city."

For Martinez, it was a loss of innocence, perhaps, and a realization that Laguna — the self-proclaimed world-famous art community — was not as supportive of the arts and creativity as she thought.

"I had never, ever gotten one complaint about the sign," she said. "I've only gotten positive feedback — really sweet messages. I've had people come upstairs and say, 'I'm having a horrible day so thank you so much for putting that out there.' "

Unfortunately, the city doesn't know when to get out of its own way.

This case is like the whale story: Red tape bloodies the waters.

You can either let the whale swim free amid cheers and YouTube videos, or you can be the life-sucking bureaucrat who kills the spirit of everything it touches.

Time and again, Laguna is making clear its choice.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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