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City may pause development in Laguna Canyon; group wants long-term plan

This post has been corrected, as noted below.

The Laguna Beach City Council directed city staff on Tuesday to look into the possibility of a short-term moratorium on development in Laguna Canyon.

The council had been listening in recent sessions to residents' concerns about proposed and approved projects in the area.

Councilman Steve Dicterow called for a discussion on canyon zoning after the April 22 council meeting, when hundreds of residents packed City Hall to speak on a proposed 40-unit facility for the mentally ill near the dog park and Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Laguna Canyon residents have recently banded together to form The Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization (CANDO).

Members want to halt development in the area until they see a long-term plan that addresses infrastructure and safety along Laguna Canyon Road, a state-owned highway and a primary artery for traffic into and out of Laguna Beach.

CANDO has two dozen active members, who represent several hundred residents from the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Assn., the Canyon Acres, Woodland Drive and Sarah Thurston neighborhood associations, and homeowners on Castle Rock Road, Stan Oaks Drive and Raquel Road, said Steve Tollefsrud, who lives on Canyon Acres Drive.

The group is concerned that Laguna Canyon Road, which is primarily two lanes, will not be able to support development projects in the canyon.

Dicterow asked city staff to look into a possible development moratorium until a comprehensive plan for the canyon is in place.

"There's a lot of activity [in the canyon] going on," Dicterow said. "If I lived there I'd sure feel like we're under attack. It's time for an open and frank discussion about what is going on there, whether rules are adequate and which steps should we be taking."

On April 1 the City Council approved a 30-unit artist work-live project and three weeks later the Planning Commission gave the OK for additional summertime parking at both the Boys & Girls Club (public valet) and at a vacant lot on Canyon Acres Drive for art festival employees.

Appeals for both projects have been filed.

Meanwhile, the Friendship Shelter and Jamboree Housing Inc. are proposing the 40-unit facility to house primarily mentally ill patients, and a Newport Beach resident wants to build a three-story, 97,025-square-foot self-storage facility in the Big Bend area.

It's too much, resident Carl Klass said.

"That canyon is like an artery, an artery in your body," Klass said. "It's a free-flowing vein. You stop that vein and you have a heart attack. You wonder why people are mad in town, well you guys have been doing this for 20 years. You've been piecemealing things into the canyon, and you have the occupancy in the canyon keep getting larger, larger and larger, which means there are more people in the canyon. That canyon still has a two-lane road with no sidewalks."

Laguna Canyon, an area from El Toro Road to the Festival of Arts, includes nine zoning types, including houses, businesses and open space, principal planner Scott Drapkin said.

Drawn by what they call the canyon's rural, peaceful nature, Tollefsrud and partner Sheila Maquilan moved to their Canyon Acres Drive house in 2010.

But all too often they hear screeching cars and screaming sirens.

"We hear sirens going up and down [on Laguna Canyon Road] a minimum of three times a day," Maquilon said.

Other times, there are too many cars on the road, Maquilon said.

"In the summer it takes 30 minutes from Coast Highway to home," Maquilon said. "During spring break, traffic starts backing up at 1 p.m."

Tollefsrud said he got involved with CANDO because of safety concerns. Two pedestrians have been hit by cars in the last three months near Laguna College of Art + Design's main campus at 2222 Laguna Canyon Road.

He brought up the death of 22-year-old student Nina Fitzpatrick, who was struck by a car while walking in a crosswalk on April 3 and said the current flashing lights are not enough.

"CANDO is not anti-development, nor anti-business," Tollefsrud said. "We want the college to grow, but we don't want people burying their kids."

Caltrans and the city are working to speed up installation of an approved traffic signal at the crosswalk in front of the college at the urging of LCAD President Jonathan Burke.

Safety concerns are not limited to pedestrian and bicyclist safety along Laguna Canyon Road, said John Hamil, vice president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Assn.

"We have a lot of people wandering around in our neighborhood, peeking over fences, sleeping, and we have fires that are built at night," Hamil said during the April 22 City Council meeting. "We're very sensitive about this fire issue.

"That said, we feel that there has not been demonstrated a real good plan for what is it we envision for canyon. How do we want it to turn out? Ten years from now what might it be like? We're concerned about piecemeal development in the canyon and its implications for the quality of lives of the people who live there and for the environment that we all want to protect."

The Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan emphasizes projects that maintain the canyon's rural, small-scale nature.

"Defining words like 'rural' and 'small scale' are not abstract questions," said Arnold Hano, who has lived in Laguna since 1955. "This town has rural areas and small scale. If we're going to define those terms, it seems we would have to define Laguna Beach all over again.

"Let's be careful about the word 'developed.' When you say 'developed,' do you mean adding more commercial stuff to the canyon? The canyon is already developed."

Hano opposes the proposed self-storage facility.

The city is also looking at a comprehensive plan for Laguna Canyon Road that could include adding pedestrian and bike lanes and undergrounding utility poles, which Tollefsrud supports, and will eventually hire an urban planner to suggest ways of improving traffic circulation, parking and bicyclist and pedestrian safety.

CANDO plans to create a website and select officers in the coming weeks.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman wants an urban planner to look at the canyon first.

"[The canyon] is where the urgency is," Iseman said. "Maybe what we have is enough. But if we don't know what 'small scale' means, then it doesn't matter. ... We may not have to change things if we have the knowledge that each one of these projects doesn't just impact the people in the canyon, it impacts the entire community. Anyone who drives to work in the morning and commutes is impacted as we go forward with these projects."

City staff will return to the council with information about a possible moratorium on development later this month or in June.

For the Record, 11:23 a.m. May 9: An earlier version of this story should not have refered to a proposed 40-unit facility in Laguna Canyon next to the dog park and Pacific Marine Mammal Center as only for mentally ill clients. The Friendship Shelter and Jamboree Housing Inc.’s proposal would house 40 chronically homeless adults living with a disability, either mental or physical.

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