Building in Laguna Canyon can continue

Development can continue in Laguna Canyon, the Laguna Beach City Council decided Tuesday night in rejecting the idea of a moratorium.

After listening to 38 speakers, the council opted to have the Planning Commission, residents and city staff define "rural" and "small scale" and determine whether current zoning laws are appropriate.

"Rural" and "small scale" are two terms included in the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan, which sets development standards for an area stretching from Big Bend north along Laguna Canyon Road to El Toro Road. The area contains Laguna Canyon Creek and a mix of land uses, including houses, small businesses and a dog park.

Backers of a two-year moratorium proposed the development freeze because they said the area has reached a tipping point in regard to traffic and safety on the two-lane Laguna Canyon Road, a main road in and out of the city.

To enact a development moratorium under California law, a governing body needs to determine that a current or immediate threat to the public's health, safety or welfare exists and that any additional buildings or subdivisions would add to those problems.

Daniel Marriner, who grew up in Laguna, has owned a home in the canyon for 10 years.

"The out-of-character size and scale of these developments are a clear sign of disregard for preserving the very meaningful entry that provides a few miles of immense beauty and relief from the surrounding developments of our county," Marriner said. "As an adjunct professor at [Laguna College of Art + Design] and a parent of a kindergartner at Anneliese School in the canyon, I've already experienced too many safety disasters and heard many more close calls from my students."

Two pedestrians, including LCAD student Nina Fitzpatrick, died after being hit by cars along Laguna Canyon Road this year.

The canyon, which stretches from the intersection of Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads south to Canyon Acres Drive, was the focus of a slew of projects proposed in the last year, including a 40-unit facility to house the homeless, a 630-unit self-storage building and a 30-unit artist live-work complex, which the City Council approved on a 3-2 vote in April.

Moratorium opponents suggested individual projects be judged on their own merits and advocated for collaboration among residents, city staff, the Planning Commission and the council to determine whether zoning in the canyon needs to be changed.

Several speakers urged the council to exempt the Friendship Shelter and Jamboree Housing Inc.'s proposed permanent supportive housing facility from any development moratorium. The complex, which would sit on city-owned land near the site of the current Alternative Sleeping Location, would house 40 chronically homeless adults living with either a mental or physical disability.

Debate on the project has gone both ways, with supporters claiming the facility would get people off the streets and on their way to productive lives.

"Once you give them a place to live, things change quickly," said the Rev. Donald Cameron, minister at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach.

Cameron said he has interacted with and fed homeless people.

"If they don't have a place to live, things deteriorate quickly," he said.

Some canyon residents said they want to help the homeless and are in favor of providing housing for them, just not at the proposed location. They said transients often wander into nearby residential neighborhoods, smoking and leaving trash.

"The homeless problem is huge and getting worse, and we need to work on that problem," canyon resident John Hamil said. "The permanent housing will definitely help the people in that housing, but it won't do anything for the people that won't go in the permanent housing.

"Those are the people that are damaging the city and the canyon and present a very real threat to us. The threat is not just because they are unruly and disagreeable or don't smell good. It's a problem with things like fire and the fact they are armed.

Hamil added that such a facility "is a great solution in an urban setting, but it bothers me to think of having it in a rural setting, particularly with the transportation problems" along the canyon road.

The council held a public meeting on the proposed shelter in April. On Tuesday, Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said she urged the Friendship Shelter, a Laguna Beach agency that helps homeless adults achieve self-sufficiency, and Jamboree Housing to boost their community outreach to educate the public about their project.

Councilman Steve Dicterow called for discussion about a possible canyon development moratorium at the May 20 council meeting.

"There's no question in my mind that we need to expand our concept of what constitutes rural character and small scale," Dicterow said. "Let's go back to the [artist] live-work project. I believed that was consistent with rural character and small scale. Many, if not most of you, disagreed with that. We have to figure out how we're all going to have a common sense of what constitutes rural character and small scale."

But on Tuesday, he opposed the temporary moratorium.

"I'm concerned because it might be too much of an infringement on property rights, but I'm afraid of doing nothing," Dicterow said. "It's a balance. We've got to protect the canyon. We've got to protect property rights at the same time, and we want to help the homeless."

Friendship Shelter founder Colin Henderson suggested forming a group made up of canyon residents, downtown merchants, city representatives and Friendship Shelter staff to discuss the homeless problem and provide more direction for handling the myriad issues related to homelessness.

"Permanent supportive housing is one of the most important pieces we must keep on the board," Henderson said. "We must get to work now because these are issues of public safety."

The council on Tuesday stopped short of suggesting any zoning changes. Members want further study and community input and directed the Planning Commission to hold public workshops.

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