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Demonstrations, smoking ban and landmark hotel were among Laguna's notable issues in 2017

Demonstrations, smoking ban and landmark hotel were among Laguna's notable issues in 2017
Hotel Laguna, which was built in the 1880s, will likely close at year's end when its current lease expires. The hotel's operator, Andersen Hotels Inc., sued the property owner, E.W. Merritt Farms, in October, claiming Merritt Farms breached their contract. (File Photo)

In 2017, Laguna Beach became a hub for a political organization’s demonstrations and a place where smoking is banned in all public places.

The year also was noteworthy for a couple of decisions by the California Coastal Commission and the pending closure of the landmark Hotel Laguna.

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Here are several of the year’s top stories in Laguna Beach, as selected by the Daily Pilot and listed with the most recent developments first:

Hotel Laguna likely to close at year’s end

In December, U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton dismissed portions of a lawsuit that alleged members of a group had committed trademark infringement by using the name Hotel Laguna and advertising themselves as the new owners of the property at 425 S. Coast Hwy. without consent of its operator, Andersen Hotels Inc.

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An attorney for Andersen Hotels, which has run the hotel, built in the 1880s, for 32 years, confirmed in November that the hotel would likely close when Andersen’s lease expires Dec. 31.

Andersen sued the property owner, E.W. Merritt Farms, in October, alleging that Merritt Farms, filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, real estate investor Joe Hanauer, James Ray and Kimbark Group LLC did not comply with lease terms to give Andersen the right of first refusal should Merritt Farms decide to sell the property or the hotel. Andersen alleged that the group structured a 99-year lease in an attempt to avoid Andersen's right of first refusal.

In an October statement, MacGillivray said the group’s primary interest is preserving Laguna’s historical buildings.

Coastal Commission rejects Laguna’s changes to short-term lodging rules

The California Coastal Commission in December rejected the city of Laguna Beach’s proposal to ban new short-term lodging permits in all residential zones.

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The city sought to amend its ordinance regarding the practice, in which people rent a house or an apartment for 30 consecutive days or less. Coastal commissioners said the prohibition would hinder opportunities for visitors to access beaches and parks.

The commission liked portions of the ordinance, including rules for the number of guests and the times of day visitors could be on the properties.

The City Council unanimously approved the revised ordinance in August 2016. It would have increased the number of commercial areas where short-term rentals were allowed. The issue divided the community, with short-term lodging proponents saying it provides people an opportunity to enjoy Laguna with the amenities of a house. Opponents said transient renters litter sidewalks and streets, have loud parties and take up parking on neighborhood streets.

Laguna police officer arrested in elder abuse and fraud case

The Laguna Beach Police Department placed one of its officers on paid administrative leave in December, pending the outcome of an investigation of allegations of elder abuse and fraud.

Fullerton police arrested Officer Rock Wagner, his sister Wendy Wagner and her boyfriend, Norman McBride, on Nov. 28, alleging they had defrauded two Fullerton residents out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Laguna Beach police said no criminal acts are alleged to have occurred while Rock Wagner, a nine-year department veteran, was on duty.

South Coast Water District moves ahead on desalination

After multiple public hearings in the past two years, the South Coast Water District board of directors agreed in November that the district should design and build a proposed desalination facility in Dana Point instead of establishing a partnership with a private company.

South Coast wants to build the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project on district property near Doheny State Beach. It could produce 5 million gallons of drinking water per day for customers in South Laguna, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. Board members noted South Coast’s dependence on imported water as a reason to look for other means of supplying water to customers.

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The board has not approved the project and would need to better determine the amount of water it would produce.

Doctor sentenced to probation

Laguna Beach physician Robert Pettis was sentenced to community service and three years’ probation after pleading guilty in October to misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter in a 2013 traffic collision on Laguna Canyon Road that killed Alberto Casique, 47, of Anaheim and Armando Gonzalez, 38, of Santa Ana.

Pettis, driving a Tesla Model S, crossed a double yellow line and hit them head-on, authorities said. Attorney Otto Haselhoff filed a civil lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of Casique’s family that named Pettis, Dekker Nolan McKeever (who the suit alleged may have been speeding alongside Pettis before the wreck) and multiple cities and public agencies as defendants. A trial is scheduled for April.

Demonstrations raise tensions at Main Beach

An August rally at Laguna's Main Beach by the group America First drew demonstrators on both sides of the illegal immigration issue.
An August rally at Laguna's Main Beach by the group America First drew demonstrators on both sides of the illegal immigration issue. (File Photo)

More than 2,500 people descended on Main Beach in August when political action group America First held a rally to honor victims of crimes that organizers said were committed by immigrants living in the United States illegally.

A majority of those who attended opposed America First and alleged that the lead rally organizer, Johnny Benitez, is a racist. Benitez denied that and said pay scales in many jobs are low because employers hire workers from outside the country. Police arrested four people at the rally.

Benitez organized another demonstration in October to call attention to previous attacks on American installations in Benghazi, Libya. Police and Benitez ended the demonstration after an hour as arguments intensified among rally supporters and opponents.

City Council bans smoking in all public areas

On June 23, smoking became illegal on sidewalks and alleys and in multi-unit residential common areas such as laundry rooms.

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The City Council in May unanimously passed an ordinance amending Laguna’s municipal code to expand the number of public areas where smoking is off limits. The council cited complaints from residents about secondhand smoke on sidewalks and in parking lots.

Laguna already had prohibited smoking at city parks and beaches.

Owners of hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments can decide whether to allow smoking in areas such as guest rooms and pools.

Coastal Commission approves restoration of Crystal Cove cottages

Crystal Cove Conservancy founder Laura Davick, right, and President and Chief Executive Alix Hobbs stand in one of 17 cottages at Crystal Cove State Park planned to be restored.
Crystal Cove Conservancy founder Laura Davick, right, and President and Chief Executive Alix Hobbs stand in one of 17 cottages at Crystal Cove State Park planned to be restored. (File Photo)

In March, the Crystal Cove Alliance, which later changed its name to the Crystal Cove Conservancy, received approval from the California Coastal Commission to restore the remaining 17 cottages in need of such work on the beachfront property in Newport Coast, between Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.

A total of 46 cottages were shuttered in 2001, when a developer proposed to convert them into cabins, add three swimming pools and a 150-seat restaurant.

Advocates of preserving the cottages, including Laura Davick, the conservancy’s founder and vice president, are raising money for a multi-year restoration project.

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