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Laguna Beach officials agree to seek outside funds to finance sewer digester projects

Laguna Beach officials agree to seek outside funds to finance sewer digester projects
The fate of the historic sewer digester building at the corner of Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road remains uncertain. The City Council decided Tuesday not to commit to making longterm plans for the 1930s-era property without outside funding sources. (File Photo)

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The Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday decided against making solid plans for the 1930s-era sewer treatment building in the Village Entrance area, but agreed to look for potential outside funding sources to one day help finance renovations and new uses.

Officials raised concerns about the current renovation costs, which may exceed the estimated $433,174, and how to pay for them.

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After deliberating the initial costs of undergoing any type of historic restoration, and acknowledging the risk of possible cost increases, council members agreed to try and find the funds elsewhere.

The council voted unanimously to seek outside money to fund any exterior renovations or re-purposing of the building.

Additionally, the council agreed to seek outside funds to finance removing the estimated 60,000 gallons of wastewater and 40 cubic yards of solid waste remaining in the building.

An exterior historic restoration of the digester would require a historic structure report, which ranges from $40,000 to $500,000, while an interior and exterior restoration would require both a historic structure report and an environmental impact assessment, which runs about $40,000.

The digester, known for its red-tile roof and hallmark silo, stands on city property bounded by sections of Laguna Canyon Road, Broadway Street and Forest Avenue.

The 83-year-old facility treated sewage until the 1980s, but now serves as a police storage building — and a landmark visible to anyone entering downtown on Laguna Canyon Road.

During discussions, the council offered various ideas. Councilwoman Toni Iseman advocated for an exterior renovation to the digester as well as re-purposing the interior.

Public bathrooms, she suggested, would be a nice contribution downtown.

“A [Works Projects Administration] building isn’t just a funny old sewer building,” Iseman said. “The fact that a town like Laguna had the good sense to make something beautiful out of something so ordinary — they did it. It’s a source of joy for a lot of people, to see the history of our town and how people thought about things.”

Residents speaking at the meeting suggested alternative options, such as converting the property into a skate park or public art center.

Mayor Kelly Boyd disagreed with making solid plans to convert the digester into anything, saying that the debate surrounding the digester has gone on for too long.

“In the 12 years I’ve sat up here, we have seen more people come up with more ideas [for the digester], and we have spent more money saying, ‘OK, we’re going to put in all this parking — no we’re not going to do that, oh we’re going to do this — no we’re not going to do that,’ ” Boyd said. “It’s gone on for 20 years — and it’s ridiculous. We gotta move forward and do this.”

Councilman Bob Whalen suggested a more-prudent course.

“[I think you should] determine what you want to do with the building, interior, exterior, how you want to re-purpose it, then go see if you can get some grant money to restore it,” he said. “If there’s grant money to do that work, do it, but otherwise I think you gotta get to a point where you say, ‘I have to spend $100,000 or $60,000.’ ”

Councilman Steve Dicterow said that the digester building is a “quirky and interesting building consistent with Laguna and its history.”

However, he agreed that grant money should be sought to fund any projects.

Councilman Rob Zur Schmiede emphasized the importance of researching how to remove waste below the building.

Laguna gives the structure a K-rating on its historic registry. The designation applies to buildings that have retained their architectural integrity.

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