Proposed ballot initiative seeks to require voter approval for major commercial projects in Laguna Beach

the Museum Hotel
A rendering depicts the Laguna Beach Co.'s Museum Hotel project. Laguna Residents First pointed to the proposal as one of the reasons for its proposed ballot initiative to give Laguna Beach voters a chance to determine whether “major commercial projects” can be built.
(File Illustration)

Laguna Beach residents may get to vote on which major commercial developments can be built in the city, depending on the fate of an initiative proposed for the November ballot.

A notice of intent was filed with the city March 6 by Laguna Residents First, an organization that promotes protections for the city’s heritage and environment.

The proposed initiative calls for all future commercial developments in the city to be “unique,” mitigate their effects on neighboring properties and residents and be “innovative” in preserving the city’s aesthetic value.

It would establish an ordinance to ensure Laguna Beach voters, by simple majority, determine whether “major commercial projects” approved by the City Council can be built and that all elements of land-use changes approved by residents are implemented.

The initiative defines major commercial projects as commercial development or redevelopment projects, or residential development or redevelopment projects with 10 or more residential units, that would:

  • Generate 200 or more additional average daily vehicle trips
  • Provide fewer parking spaces than the “reasonably necessary number,” which varies for different types of projects
  • Create a “large-scale development”
  • Cause a “cumulative effect”

The initiative generally defines large-scale developments as those that would:

  • Exceed 45,000 square feet of total floor area
  • Combine two or more contiguous lots to create a single parcel exceeding 6,000 square feet
  • Increase the height of an existing building in a development exceeding 10,000 total square feet

A cumulative effect means the project, when considered together with other developments permitted by the city in the past eight years, and with those in process of approval at the time of application, and are within a half-mile of the project, would cause a major traffic increase or construction of more than 45,000 square feet of floor area.

“If you read the ballot initiative, it doesn’t really create any new restrictions on development,” said George Weiss, a co-founder of Laguna Residents First. “What it does is preserve those in place, and if the developer wants to propose a bigger project, we would vote on it. If everyone says yes, it’s great. We just want residents to have a vote.”

Weiss said the idea surfaced at a meeting in April with local nonprofit groups such as the Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization and the South Laguna Civic Assn. A focus group was formed to center on development, environmental effects and preservation.

Weiss said the Laguna Beach Co.'s proposal last year to provide $250,000 to help the city Community Development Department, the company’s proposed Museum Hotel project, and the city’s Downtown Action Plan and comprehensive changes to the Downtown Specific Plan were cause for alarm for many residents.

“All those things combined can maybe create a different look and feel for downtown that we may not like,” Weiss said.

At the Planning Commission’s March 4 meeting on the Downtown Action Plan, some residents called for the plan to be put to a vote.

“Our team is reviewing the proposed ballot initiative,” the Laguna Beach Co. said in a statement Friday. “While we do not believe they represent the majority of Lagunans, we will continue to engage with their organizations, as well as the many other groups across Laguna Beach, to establish the best possible outcome for all residents.”

“As a local, family-based company, we have a deep appreciation for the beauty and charm of Laguna Beach,” the statement said. “Our unique surroundings and creative ecosystem make us a special place for both our amazing residents and the visitors that have supported our economy since the late 1800s. Laguna Beach Co. aims to beautify distressed areas within our community and plans on presenting fully compliant projects.”

Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold, president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber wouldn’t support any ballot measure that would add restrictions to “an already onerous process of obtaining a license to do commerce.”

“We have spent the last five years encouraging Laguna Beach to create a more welcoming environment to retail, hospitality and commercial clients by updating over 30-year-old regulations in an effort to attract more innovative businesses and have a thriving downtown,” Hornbuckle-Arnold said.

“This proposed ballot measure is an effort by associations of individuals which have strongly opposed Laguna’s economic development and well-being for decades,” she added.

The next step for the proposal, however, is to make it to the ballot.

The city attorney has 15 days from the date of submission to prepare a ballot title and summary. Once those are delivered to the city clerk, advocates for the initiative must publish the notice of intent, ballot title and summary in a local newspaper and provide an affidavit of publication.

Once that happens, proponents will be allowed to gather signatures. They will have 180 days after receiving the ballot title and summary to collect signatures from at least 10% of the city’s registered voters, meaning they will need at least 1,726 verified signatures to qualify, City Clerk Lisette Chel-Walker said.

The signatures gathered must be submitted to the Orange County registrar of voters office for verification. The office will have 30 days to check every signature.

“This is a long process, and we are at the very beginning,” Chel-Walker said.

Daily Pilot City Editor Rob Vardon contributed to this report.

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