Laguna Fest Deal Riles Tennis Lovers


A long-term deal that would keep the Festival of the Arts in Laguna Beach is being jeopardized by protests from a tennis club that opposes the city's plans to move a pair of popular courts to make room for an expansion.

The festival wants to remake its compound by adding a theater, gallery and parking spaces. The plan would require relocating the tennis courts that have sat along the Laguna Canyon Road near the village entrance for 60 years.

But Canyon Courts Tennis Assn., a chummy crew of nearly 200 regulars who use the courts, is exploring the possibility of a court injunction, claiming the public is being shut out of the process because negotiations between the festival and the city are private.

"Of course we're going to fight it. We don't think it should move," said tennis association president Charlie Anderson. "What I find the most bothersome is that the two sides can meet behind closed doors. And there's no public discussion until after they present final lease agreement. . . . So it's kind of a fait accompli."

Under state law, municipalities can meet in closed sessions on matters dealing with lease agreements on government real estate. The festival leases its property from the city.

Mayor Paul Freeman said he has promised the tennis group a chance to make its case as soon as a final proposal is crafted.

However, Freeman also argued that the tennis group has little, if any, authority to challenge the city's plans for its own property. And he noted that alternative sites are already being explored and the courts would have a new, and possibly even nicer, home.

"I know the Canyon Tennis Assn. would like to stay exactly where they are right now. I think that's their case to make," Freeman said. "I also think, speaking candidly, that that's an unlikely outcome."

The festival is a regional exhibition of more than 150 artists that began in Laguna Beach in 1932. It draws thousands of visitors. The festival's current directors were appointed last year after a heated recall of the former board, which threatened to move the eight-week exhibition south to San Clemente.

The old festival board had clashed with Laguna Beach over the rent the festival should pay and who would control money set aside for improving the aging festival grounds.

Plans drawn up by the new festival board call for an expansion of the Laguna Beach site. The 225-seat theater now serving the Pageant of the Masters would be remodeled to modernize it and bring it up to code with current regulations outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also, a new and larger community theater would be built for year-round use by other local groups and troupes.

A cornerstone of the redesign is a new gallery that would house the ever-expanding art collection that has been building up over the years, with some of the paintings and murals now hanging in city buildings and the rest gathering dust in storerooms.

Aside from making capital improvements, the goal is to add parking and to create facilities that can be better accessed and utilized by the entire community throughout the year, rather than for the two months the festival runs.

Despite the protests of the tennis club, festival officials remain optimistic.

"I can only tell you the first meeting we had is very encouraging," said Bruce Rasner, vice president of the arts festival. "Both sides agree the grounds have to be redeveloped."

But members of the tennis group, some artists themselves, believe the city may be overreaching in its efforts to promote and protect the arts to the exclusion of other equally important activities.

They argue that the tennis courts serve a better public good because they are used year-round, whereas the festival only runs for two months.

And they say all three proposed sites are too far from downtown and it may take years before any are approved, anyway. Plus, they argue, none of them will capture the charm, ambience and camaraderie provided by the current setting.

"I have never found anything like this," said Dimitri Panoussis, 62, a sculptor who splits his time between Laguna and Greece and has played at clubs and courts around the world. "This is my home away from home."

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