Laguna Blaze Sure to Heat Up '94 Races : Politics: Fire devastation sets the stage for a bloody battle between environmental and pro-business interests in council and water district elections.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First came the firestorm. Then the mudslides.

And now, the devastation on the blackened hillsides has set the stage for what observers say will be the bloodiest battle in 20 years as a diverse group of interests tries to take control of local politics.

Although city elections are still a year away, the fire has many people in this art colony itching for a fight to oust the pro-environmentalist City Council majority they blame for having left the city unprepared for disaster.

"People are aroused, they're sore, they're mad," said Howard Dawson, a downtown stockbroker, former mayor and councilman and member of a local taxpayers' group long at odds with the environmentalists. He predicts more than 15 people will enter the race.

The stakes in 1994 are high. Up for grabs will be three council seats--those of Robert F. Gentry, Lida Lenney and Ann Christoph. In the same election, the business community will try to keep the existing friendly majority on the Laguna Beach County Water District board--Louis J. Zitnik, Bruce R. Scherer and Ted M. Doniguian.

For city business interests, an opportunity exists to seize the reins of power for the first time since the mid-1970s.

Also perhaps for the first time ever, the council and water district races have been intertwined because of the fire and an ongoing controversy over a proposed local reservoir.

"The relationship of the fire to the reservoir makes this an interesting political year," said local attorney William M. Wilcoxen, a longtime resident who grew up in Three Arch Bay and served as an appointed member of the council in 1981-82. "I don't think there is any doubt we are going to have a pretty hot election in '94."

Like most Laguna Beach elections since 1972, next year's council race will likely be divided into two political camps: the pro-environmentalist group dominated by Village Laguna members against a pro-downtown business group that considers itself the savior of the taxpayer. But for one of the few times since 1972--considered Laguna Beach's last watershed political year--the downtown business group may have the upper hand.

Dawson and others claim the fire starkly showed what they have insisted for years: that the environmentalist council members are out of touch with reality, consistently bloating the city bureaucracy while ignoring public safety and the interests of local business people.

"When I served on the council (in 1978-82), the primary reason to serve was to help ensure the public safety. Why else even have a government?" Dawson said. "Now we've had 12 years of solid concern for the gnatcatcher or the snail darter or whatever. We've got to get back to basics here."

Supporters of the Village Laguna majority naturally bristle at any such suggestions that they should shoulder the blame for the Oct. 27 fire that ruined 366 homes and caused $400 million in damage.

"Of course it will be used against us. Some of the people were screaming and hollering about it immediately after the fire," said Phyllis Sweeney, another former council member from 1972 to 1978 who became the city's first female mayor. "It makes you wonder how people can be like that, seizing this tragic moment to advance their own agenda."

Sweeney calls the fire "a tragedy that's all anyone can talk about in Laguna." The city's response during the firestorm brings up "a whole myriad of things that need to be addressed," including brush clearance, water pressure, communications, radios, computer breakdowns and fire hydrants, Sweeney said.

"I'm hoping we don't get angry and torn apart over this because of course nobody wanted any of it to happen," she said. "There are needs that need to be addressed in some non-emotional way, but that's probably not going to happen."

It was not a tragedy that launched Village Laguna in 1970, but fear that the city was being invaded by what people then considered a material form of pestilence: high-rise hotels. The nine-story Surf and Sand Hotel had just been approved and people thought Laguna Beach would be transformed into another Miami Beach.

The fear prompted a local initiative for a 30-foot height limit throughout the city--a first in California--that passed overwhelmingly, by a 4-1 margin. That led to the formation of Village Laguna, the powerful new political force that vowed to protect the "village atmosphere" of the city from outside--or local--developers, said Wilcoxen, who was Village Laguna's first attorney.

"In those days there were several serious high-rise proposals being made in the city," he said. "But ever since then Village Laguna has been running against high-rise developers, which may be getting a little old. It may be time for a new issue."

Throughout these years the normally sleepy 68-year-old Laguna Beach County Water District has managed to avoid much controversy. Unless one goes back to the 1930s--when there was a local flap over a proposal to put a council member on the board--the board went about the business of installing pipelines and building the city's 22 reservoirs with little notice by the public.

"The water business as a general rule is pretty boring to the average person," said director Joseph R. Sweany. "People are interested mainly in turning on the tap and getting water to the shower."

That was until the district in 1990 proposed building its 23rd reservoir, a 3-million-gallon tank in the Top of the World community. That reservoir, long resisted by the council majority as a disturbance to the hilltop environment, has emerged as a flash point for debate throughout Laguna Beach.

Could it really have saved many homes? Zitnik thinks so.

"My campaign is going to be based solely on the reservoir at the top of the hill," said the 70-year-old stockbroker and 18-year member of the water board. "It's a simple matter of public safety."

Water board President Richard Jahraus, a native Lagunan and 25-year member of the board, agreed, adding that the fire and the reservoir issue have stirred the city like never before.

"We don't play politics on the water board the way the council does," said Jahraus, whose family founded the Laguna Beach Lumber Co. "But I think a lot of people are upset with the things going on in this city, not just the fire, but unnecessary litigation. I think there's going to be a lot of changes in lots of things."

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