Laguna puts hold on developer’s proposal of $250,000 to aid Community Development Department

The Laguna Beach City Council pulled a developer’s proposal to provide $250,000 to the city off its meeting agenda Tuesday night, disappointing residents who had come to have their say.

Local hotel and real estate investor Mo Honarkar has proposed funding a new city employee or an outside contractor for up to $180,000 per year to help the Community Development Department expedite work on major projects.

For the record:

12:45 p.m. Jan. 28, 2019This article originally misidentified David Rubel as David Raber.

The proposed agreement would forbid the developer from having a say over hiring and “in no way guarantees, assures or otherwise represents that the city will provide special or preferential treatment of any application [Honarkar] might submit.”

The agreement also states the funds could be used for project negotiations and “analysis of potential benefits … of applications for major development projects.”

City Manager John Pietig suggested the council pull the item after an overwhelmingly negative response in the community. “I don’t think it’s the right time to move forward with it given the concern in town,” he said.

“It’s clear this item is misunderstood,” Pietig said, “because we don’t have the capacity in the Community Development Department to handle a number of applications from large projects at one time. As we look to staff up, those costs have to be paid by somebody, and so if it’s not paid by the developer, then it’s going to be paid by the general public or other people through fee increases.”

His comments provoked a rumbling from the audience in the packed council chamber.

“Raise the fee!” one person called out.

At least 20 people raised their hands to say they had attended the council meeting to talk about Honarkar’s proposal. Most of them walked out after Mayor Bob Whalen confirmed the item had been pulled.

“I think this is not going to go forward in its current form or anywhere near its current form,” Whalen said. “This one’s not ready for prime time; it needs more work.”

Pietig said city staff will take another look at the proposal and likely bring it back in the spring along with other suggestions for the Community Development Department.

“To clarify, it’s our understanding that the city of Laguna Beach is understaffed in the Community Development Department, which impacts planning projects,” Mark Orgill, spokesman for Honarkar’s Laguna Beach Co., said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Given this, we offered to advance a portion of our expected developer fees while the city refines its development fee program. The word ‘donation’ was used on the City Council agenda incorrectly, and it’s understandably created some concern among community members.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said the number of people who showed up for the meeting, combined with the more than 40 who attended the last meeting to discuss the city Design Review Board, is evidence of a problem with the city’s development process.

“We have a systemic problem,” Iseman said. “It’s a priority for us to look globally at this problem.”

Anita Dobbs, a retired teacher at Laguna Beach High School, had prepared to speak against the proposal, using a printed statement dotted with handwritten notes.

“It just smacks of things being too cozy, and I don’t see how the city could not possibly taint its reputation if it were to accept this gift,” Dobbs said. “I mean, it’s just ridiculous.”

Ginger Osborne, a member and former president of the organization Village Laguna, said she had hoped to say the idea was inherently biased. She plans to return when the item goes back to the council.

“I think it would be a great challenge for someone that was hired with money by the developer to be totally independent, or even if they were, it’s going to have the appearance of being influenced by [the developer],” Osborne said. “Even if they try to take precautions to avoid that ... it’s not going to look that way. We shouldn’t go down that track.”

Michael Ray, founder of the local political action committee Liberate Laguna, said he would have spoken in support of the agreement, with the condition that the funds go toward expediting all projects, not just Honarkar’s.

“I don’t think [Honarkar] should have special access because of prepaying a fee at all, but if it applied to anyone or everyone, then so what?” Ray said.

City hiring consultant for downtown retail study

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to hire an urban economist to do a retail market evaluation of Laguna Beach’s downtown to aid the Downtown Specific Plan update.

“The purpose of this was to have people who have some expertise in the evolving and changing nature of retail come in and analyze our downtown and advise us on the kinds of things that we should be doing going forward in order to revitalize and have an active downtown,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow.

The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce selected Stanley R. Hoffman and Associates to be the consultant. The Los Angeles-based firm has advised several other cities and counties in California. The chamber is putting up $25,000 to fund the study, and the city is contributing $13,800.

The evaluation, which the Planning Commission suggested at an earlier meeting, is expected to suggest ways the city can ease its approval processes, said Community Development Director Greg Pfost.

“We’re moving toward an effort where we’re going to provide more flexibility by allowing perhaps some uses to be able to be approved administerially instead of going through the conditional use process,” Pfost said.

Several members of the public said the study should update the rules for downtown businesses that were created before the internet.

“The hope … is they will help us to understand and create more of an experience in our downtown area,” said store owner and Chamber of Commerce member Carmelit Green.

Chamber member David Rubel said the study is needed to refresh a downtown that is “pretty tired and stale.”

“Everyone can tell you what they don’t want, but we do need to talk about what we do want,” Rubel said.

Councilman Peter Blake voted for the study but said the city doesn’t need a consultant but a new conditional use permitting process. Conditional use permits are required for applications for many kinds of downtown businesses.

“Why don’t we just open up the process?” Blake said.

Meeting with school board

Before the council’s regular meeting, it met with the Laguna Beach Unified School District board for a presentation by Laguna police Cpl. Cornelius Ashton, who was hired in the fall as the city’s school resource officer.

Ashton said he has given 54 presentations to high school and middle school students on topics such as mental health, digital safety and manners. He has helped with lockdown drills and created a school resource officer Instagram page to help reach students.

“I use this uniform as a vessel to connect with the kids,” Ashton said.

The council and school board also agreed to pursue expanding adult education programming. They discussed possibly adding new classes such as computer skills and “how to start a business,” offering childcare and keeping the Community & Susi Q Center open for the additional programming. Laguna Beach Unified already offers English as a Second Language classes for adults.