Looking back on the year’s top stories in Laguna Beach

Business closures, court battles and clothing wars characterized 2015 in Laguna Beach. The City Council took a firm stand on the practice of short-term rentals, banning stays of 30 days or less in most residential neighborhoods, while the Planning Commission, in a rare move, recommended revoking a business’ permit after complaints from pedestrians of aggressive solicitors.

There were times of celebration too, including the Laguna Beach High tennis courts makeover after years of discussion.

Looking ahead to 2016? Expect many conversations on downtown’s future as the city’s consultant MIG and staff recommend changes to the downtown specific plan that will shape Laguna’s look and feel for years. But for now, here is a snapshot of how things played out in Laguna in 2015. Stories are listed in reverse chronological order:



City orders skin care business to close

In December, the City Council denied an appeal by the owners of Oceane Skin Care to remain open after the Planning Commission recommended revoking the owners’ operating permit, a rare occurrence in Laguna.

The city fielded complaints from pedestrians accusing employees of trying to sell merchandise on the sidewalk and wooing them into the store.

An attorney for Oceane, which has 90 days to vacate the Forest Avenue location, declined to say whether the company would take legal action.


Resident continues battle with The Ranch

Resident Mark Fudge is not done fighting the hotel renovation project in Aliso Canyon.

In December, Fudge appealed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin’s decision to dismiss Fudge’s lawsuit against the city and California Coastal Commission. Fudge claims the city was negligent in approving the project in 2014 without adequate environmental review.

The Coastal Commission in January approved plans from Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow Village LLC, led by principal investor Mark Christy, that include refurbished guest suites.

Fruin must still rule on whether the Coastal Commission’s decision was backed by sufficient evidence during a separate trial, though no date has been scheduled.


Haggen folds, Gelson’s will move in

Haggen Inc. grocery’s stay in Laguna was short-lived. The Bellingham, Wash.-based company filed for bankruptcy in September and company executives decided to close 67 California stores, including the one across South Coast Highway from the Montage.

The store, which replaced an Albertsons, was open less than a year, but shoppers complained of higher prices than other supermarket chains. In December, a bankruptcy court judge approved the store’s sale to Gelson’s, scheduled to move in by April.


Short-term rentals

With a few exceptions, the City Council in November voted to outlaw renting out rooms in houses and apartments for 30 days or less in most residential areas, a decision that built upon a moratorium enacted earlier in the year.

Residents complained renters had little courtesy for neighbors by partying late at night and creating parking problems on city streets.

The council allowed owners who live on site to rent rooms for short stays, and agreed that the 33 property owners with valid permits be allowed to continue offering rental space.


Renovated Laguna Beach High tennis courts open

After three years of meetings and varying cost projections, city and Laguna Beach Unified School District officials finally agreed on a $1.2 million renovation project for the tennis courts on Park Avenue used by high school teams and the public.

City and school officials, and residents welcomed the new courts at a Nov. 19 ceremony.

Parents and players complained the courts had become a safety hazard, with slippery surfaces and extensive cracks. The city paid 70% of the total cost while the district contributed 30% as part of their joint-use agreement.


Laguna’s only movie theater closes after 90 years

Laguna South Coast Cinemas showed its final movie in late August after Regency Theatres officials and building owner Leslie Blumberg could not agree on terms of a lease extension.

Regency wanted to convert films to digital projection and install new seats, drapes, carpet and exterior paint. The city and Blumberg are looking into options for the building, including restoration.

The theater’s roots date to 1921, when the Aufdenkamp family built the building, the city’s first structure composed of concrete and steel.


Laguna Canyon fire

A July 3 fire put the city on heightened alert about its vulnerability to a larger blaze and caused Mayor Bob Whalen to meet with Southern California Edison officials about placing utility poles and wires underground sooner rather than later.

The fire started about 3 p.m. near Canyon Acres Drive and Arroyo Drive when a tree toppled onto a power line, eliciting sparks that ignited brush. The fire burned 15 acres and no one was injured.


Laguna Beach High baseball field fence and trees

Laguna Beach Unified officials explored costs for reconfiguring the Laguna Beach High baseball field or adding a 50-foot-tall fence to catch flying baseballs after neighbors complained of balls landing dangerously close to pedestrians and cars along St. Ann’s Drive.

Then there are the eucalyptus trees surrounding the field. The school board in June rescinded its decision a month earlier to remove 28 eucalyptus trees after learning the project’s landscape architect Ann Christoph, was told not to get neighbors’ feedback when creating her plan. Residents worried the trees, when fully grown, would block views, create a fire hazard and could injure someone if large branches broke off.

The board voted to keep the trees, at least until it decides what to do with the baseball field.


Downtown clothing wars

Laguna Beach’s retail clothing market in Laguna took center stage in May when existing business owners Jenni and Sammy Elmished tried to open a new store offering men’s and women’s apparel on Forest Avenue.

Some merchants complained the clothing market downtown had become saturated and resisted the kind of inventory the Elmisheds planned to sell.

The Planning Commission allowed the Elmisheds to open their store, called Casual, but that hasn’t stopped discussion of whether the city should establish rules to limit the number of businesses in a certain market from opening.


Sea lions continue washing up on Orange County beaches

As of Dec. 24, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Canyon treated a record number of malnourished sea lions — 564 — continuing a disturbing trend the last three years.

Scientists say the pups’ food source, primarily sardines, is dwindling, and they are having to travel farther for food, but theories abound as to the cause of the food shortage.

At one point in May, center staff was caring for 134 sea lions. Center officials are preparing for the trend to continue in 2016, Executive Director Keith Matassa said.


City hires first female police chief

In March, Laura Farinella was officially hired as Laguna Beach’s first female police chief and is reportedly the first openly gay chief in Orange County.

Farinella spent the prior 25 years with the Long Beach Police Department and emphasized community interaction as a key tenant for the department under her watch.