Column: Laguna’s year of one step forward, two back

There probably are official year-end reviews of Laguna Beach from groups like the chamber of commerce, the City Council and school district, but they’re not nearly as fun as the unofficial year in review.

Think of this as street talk, party banter and salacious gossip — mashed up with Lagunatic-worthy irreverence.

The non-fake facts are that Laguna survived 2017 by doing what it does best: fleecing tourists while patronizing residents.


Using a delicate balance of charm and double-talk, the city’s elders managed to dodge most of its core responsibilities.

Were there achievements? Sure, a few. Did they make a big difference? Not really.

But let’s evaluate the top 10 stories, and you be the judge.

10. Death of John Gardiner. The eternal poet laureate of Laguna Beach died unexpectedly in October, leaving locals shocked and heartbroken. What made this news so difficult for everyone, among other things, was that he was so unflappable, so full of energy and so irascible. We mistakenly thought he would live forever.

9. Fake smoke. It was quaint, wasn’t it, the no smoking ban? The city still warns people coming into town that it’s against the law to smoke in public. Then again, the city also says — on those same, annoying electronic billboards — that loud motorcycle noise will be cited. How is that working out? Bikers proudly wear “loud pipes save lives” stickers while smokers continue to throw butts into the ocean. Next the city will claim that leaf blowers are illegal — oh wait.

8. Consultant for hire. There must be a shortage of consultants within the greater Laguna area by now, right? I haven’t done the math, but my guess is the city hires more consultants per capita than any city outside of Washington, D.C. It’s probably a record but not one that we should be proud of. I can appreciate hiring experts now and then but only for two reasons. One, you hire the consultant because it’s more cost effective than wasting staff time, or two, you truly lack the expertise. And that means you consider possible committees or task forces made up of citizen experts, which Laguna generally has. Here’s the kicker though. If you do hire an expert, listen to the result. Don’t shelve it.

7. Slumming on Park Avenue. It’s not Forest Avenue, but organizers gladly acquired Park Avenue for their little closure experiment. Hailed as a nice start by some but sniffed at as an underachieving eyesore by others, the Park Avenue closure proved that Laguna would not implode if one of its sacred streets were closed to traffic. They added some music and spruced up the place over its short run, but would it be enough to make the experiment permanent? Time will tell, but my guess is yes.

6. Sun never shines in the canyon. Laguna Canyon continued to battle a laundry list of issues in 2017: the threat of new zoning, higher densities, homeless encroachment, loss of business, LCAD expansion and the inevitability of a road expansion — or fire. It’s a wonder the beleaguered residents just don’t split off from Laguna and form their own private commune like the old days. Hard not to blame them.

5. Laguna burned its ACLU card. Somewhere along the way, the ACLU became a bully. Not only that, it forgot who its friends were. Characterizing Laguna Beach as having “harsh, inadequate policies on homelessness,” it sued (again), saying Laguna’s homeless programs are “ineffective and discriminatory.” It also said “Laguna Beach, one of the most affluent communities in the country, is openly hostile to the plight of its disabled, homeless residents.” That claim is so ridiculous I think I’ll just stop there.

4. Closed for business. You can start to see it now along the downtown shops. The mom-and-pops are almost all gone, replaced with expensive restaurants or high-end boutiques. Multiple stores have closed because of rent hikes or building ownership changes. The Hotel Laguna stores will be out soon. The entire stretch of Sleepy Hollow is nearly vacant. The signs are up and the message is clear: Goodbye Laguna, hello Santa Barbara. Big names, deep pockets, very little diversity.

3. Outsiders win again. It’s unbelievable how much outsiders control Laguna. Whether it’s the ACLU, Caltrans, the utilities or the California Coastal Commission, Laguna labors under the whims of these alien groups. Specifically, the city did all kinds of research on short-term rentals (aka the Airbnb problem) only to have its law steamrolled by the commission. It’s like when an eager business committee comes up with a snazzy new slogan for the company and approaches the CEO for approval, only to hear, “No, I don’t like it. I want the old slogan.” Deflated, Laguna must be asking, “Why do I even try?”

2. Not on my beach. One of the biggest stories of 2017 was the unfortunate assembly of hate groups in Laguna. They clearly were using the town’s liberal, high-profile brand as a way to boost their small message. Did it work? Yes. Is there a way to prevent it in the future? Probably not.

1. I’ll trade you four utilities for sanity. For those who want to underground power lines in Laguna, this year marked an important milestone: Will. There seems to be the political and public will to finally make progress on undergrounding. The foundation was laid for financing and project management. Now, we just have to see if the city’s residents are willing to pay for it. But that will be next year.

In the meantime, 2017 was a year of fits and starts for Laguna. It was busywork with good intentions, high hopes with low results.

Fittingly, 2017 was the Chinese year of the rooster — full of cocksure bluster but reliably predictable.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at