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Bullets fly in Laguna

Herb Import robbery leads to shootout

1After Nathaniel James O’Connor, 26, of Los Angeles walked into

the Herb Import Co. on a typically beautiful day on Oct. 23,

residents had one less reason to say nothing ever happens in Laguna



O’Connor reportedly held up two clerks, Michelle Estele and

Jacques Nenijian, at gunpoint for cash, glass pipes, digital scales

and other merchandise. When he handcuffed Nenijian, Estele said that


his revolver went off and shot her 26-year-old boyfriend in the back.

Nenijian stumbled inside a neighboring real estate office claiming

he’d been shot, owner John Stanaland said. Stanaland’s receptionist

called 911.

Officer Larry Bammer, 24, was one of the first to arrive on the

scene. When he turned to walk into the retail store, witnesses saw

O’Connor walk out of the store and shoot the officer.

A gun battle ensued between officers and O’Connor, who died later


that evening from gunshot wounds. Bammer is now on light duty, and

Nenijian has been released from the hospital.

Razorblades turn up on several playgrounds

2The city’s playgrounds were noticeably quiet after a city

employee discovered razorblades, nails and other sharp objects in the

sand box at Main Beach on April 27.

An anonymous caller contacted the Laguna Beach Police Department,

claiming her friends were going to “do something to hurt people” at


Main Beach.

Ten parks in South Orange County were hit. Four unsigned notes

were left nailed to park benches at Main Beach on May 17.

After police questioned the suspect, Lori Elizabeth Fischer, 21,

they began a 24-hour surveillance of her residence. After she tipped

police that her friends were going to do it again, Orange County

Sheriff’s deputies followed Fischer from her Mission Viejo home after

midnight on June 4 to Vista del Lago Park. She was arrested on

suspicion of child endangerment and assault with a deadly weapon.

Fischer is scheduled to be arraigned by the Orange County district

attorney on Jan. 6.

Festival of Arts lease -- let’s make a deal

3The Festival of Arts Board of Directors and the City Council

signed the long-awaited lease on Dec. 3.

Negotiations had taken six taxing years.

“The measure of a contract is that it benefits both sides. We all

wanted the same thing, and I think we got it,” Festival President

Bruce Rasner said.

Rasner and board member Bob Dietrich negotiated for the festival

after the successful recall of the previous board, which had planned

to move the festival to San Clemente.

Councilmen Paul Freeman, Dicterow and Baglin and Councilwoman

Cheryl Kinsman all negotiated at different times on behalf of the


“I love you all,” Kinsman told the festival board members. “You

are the reason the Festival is still here.”

Kathleen Blackburn, who served the city as mayor during a

particular trying time with the Festival now sits on the festival


“I am thrilled this is finalized,” Blackburn said.

Primary terms of the contract:

* The lease term is 40 years, including the 2000 season.

* Payment to the city will be 3.5% of revenues from Pageant of

the Masters tickets, grounds admissions and rents paid to the

festival by food and beverage vendors.

* The festival will pay 6% of those same revenues into a Festival

Improvement Fund, to be used only for improvements to the festival


* Performances of the pageant and the Festival are required to be

held on the Festival grounds in Laguna Beach, which must be the

primary location.

* No subleasing without city approval.

* If there is disagreement among the four members of the Irvine

Bowl Policy Committee, which is made up of two council members and

two festival board members, the city decides. The committee will be

charged with ensuring that the bowl facilities are used according to

the terms of the lease.

* Parking arrangements to continue.

* A study already underway on the feasibility of building a

300-space parking structure behind the Laguna Playhouse will proceed.

Village Entrance plan chosen, then undercut

4City officials scheduled a special meeting for Jan. 28 to discuss

reviving a proposal thought long-dead to move the corporation yard to


The move would clear more space for a beautification project on

the land adjacent to City Hall known as the Village Entrance, for

which a design contest was held. StudioOneEleven was the winner of

the Civic Arts District Design Contest, which included the Village

Entrance but not the removal of the corporation yard.

All four contest-finalists included the corporation yard in their

submittals, under the impression that the yard would stay put, as the

council had voted on Aug. 15, 2000, to spend no more money on moving

the yard to ACT V.

“We held a contest but [the competitors] were not given the option

of moving the corporation yard,” said Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman,

who served on the Village Entrance Task Force which had recommended

moving the corporation yard to ACT V.

Finalists in the competition included three other teams: Carter

and Burgess Inc. and FORMA, Blair Ballard Architects and Thirteenth

Street Architects Inc.

The city has the rights to the proposals by all four finalists.

Mayor Toni Iseman, who strongly supported the StudioOneEleven

entry, opposed taking steps to reanimate the move of the corporation

yard to ACT V. She was elected to the council in 1998 on a platform

that included opposition to the move and remains opposed.

Iseman claimed the move would eliminate about half of the current

400-plus parking spaces at ACT V, confirmed by City Manager Kenneth

Frank, and would force the city into providing much more parking at

the Village Entrance.

StudioOneEleven’s entry included 550 parking spaces in addition to

those at ACT, structures designed to blend with City Hall

architecture and landscaping native to the canyon. Corporation yard

functions were tucked under the parking structure.

Removal of the corporation yard would send the design team back to

the drawing board.

“We chose a winning project, but not a project,” Councilman Steven

Dicterow said.

The original proposal to move the yard to make way for a

beautification project was made in 1996 by a city task force created

to come up with a plan for the highly visible parcel next to City


Critics of the council’s decision in 2000 not to shift the

corporation yard to ACT V claimed that no other city would have such

an eyesore in its civic center.

Costs were an issue in the council’s decision. Estimates in 1996

of $6.2 million for the Village Entrance project and construction of

the corporation yard at ACT V had escalated by 1998 to almost $9


Funding for the removal of the corporation yard and its

construction at ACT V is not in the 2002-03 budget, nor in the city’s

10-year capital improvement plan.

Some funding could come from the sale of the city nursery lots on

Olive Street, but that wouldn’t cover the full amount. Other sources

are available, City Manager Ken Frank said.

“We could fund the corporation yard, but not the Village Entrance

project at present,” Frank said.

The undeveloped Village Entrance would be used for parking.

Funding for the first phase of the Village Entrance project

proposed by StudioOneEleven was supposed to come from the parking

meter increase approved in June by the council, but rescinded Dec.


How high is a hedge that is too high?

5After the City Council voted 3 to 1 to approve the hedge

ordinance on Dec. 3, Councilwoman Toni Iseman ended the discussion

with, “I suspect it will be back to haunt us.”

The zoning ordinance, which made several appearances on the

council agenda this year, allows hedges to exceed the maximum fence

height when they are not a safety hazard and do not block views from

or sunlight to neighboring properties. It also requires the

complainant to pay an administrative fee of $200 to challenge the


Only when a complainant can prove that a neighbor’s hedge is a

public safety hazard or compromises their view or sunlight, will the

height limits -- 4 feet in the front or 6 feet in the side and rear

-- be imposed on the offending hedge.

Rise and fall of meter rates and merchants

6For three months and 18 days, local merchants were steamed over

the parking meter rate hike from $1 to $1.50 per hour.

Back in June, the City Council voted 4 to 1 to implement a meter

rate hike that would generate an estimated $700,000, which would be

disbursed to local nonprofits and city projects. In subsequent years,

the extra funds would be invested in the Village Entrance project.

To help struggling merchants who have been seeing slower sales,

the council voted unanimously Dec. 17 to roll back the rate and

increase the time limits from two to three hours. It also required

city staff to return with a report on how it could fund the promised

allocations. The meters will be reprogrammed by mid-January.

Treasure Island keeps making the news

7The project formerly known as the Laguna Beach Colony Hotel was

given a new name when it was purchased by the Montage Hotels and

Resorts and the Athens Group in June.

The 30-acre site was purchased for $190 million and renamed the

Montage Resort and Spa, Laguna Beach.

In May, developers proposed a deal to pull building permits in

exchange for capping the city’s cost of building the public park.

The deal allowed the city to collect all fees for condominium

building permits and all fees relating to the building permits for

the estate lots from the Athens Group. A cap was placed on the city’s

obligation for reimbursement to Athens of $8.4 million. Also, any

cost over that figure would be the responsibility of the developer

unless it was a result of actions taken by the council. The council

approved 4 to 1, with Mayor Wayne Baglin dissenting.

At its meeting on Dec. 3, after the City Council approved changes

in street names, including renaming Colony Drive off South Coast

Highway as Montage Resort Drive, it also expressed concerns over the

parking shortage for employees.

Baglin stressed to developer spokesman John Mansour that public

parking on the site had to be maintained and that employee parking on

residential streets would not be allowed. Mansour confirmed that the

resort was investigating solutions that would not glut residential


The company’s founder, president and chief executive officer, Alan

J. Fuerstman, confirmed that the resort will open mid-February 2003.

-- Mary A. Castillo

Rotary Club Grand Prix shakes things up

8The Laguna Beach Rotary Club held a Grand Prix on Sept. 28 along

Forrest Avenue and Third, Mermaid and Glenneyre streets.

The event drew many amateur and professional cyclists, as well as

visitors from all over. But it also brought a bit of contention with

it when merchants complained that they didn’t have enough notice and

the blocking of the streets ruined business for the day.

Residents also complained that traffic for the day was hideous and

suggested the race be held in a more industrial location -- in a

different city.

The Rotary Club responded that they had notified businesses, had

approval from the City Council dating back to December 2001 and would

address many of the concerns of merchants and residents for any

future races.

The event was designed to promote bike safety, and funds went to

the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach and other charities.

School boundary changes proposed,

9This summer, the school district decided to change the boundaries

of its elementary schools to balance the enrollment between El Morro

and the over-populated Top of the World.

The proposal was a source of contention between residents, parents

and the school board.

“We just want to be fair and reduce some of the pressure,” Daem


Supt. Theresa Daem and the board spent months in meetings and

hundreds of hours on research to narrow down five final options they

felt would best suit the families and district. Daem put a lot of

weight on parents’ concerns and most were satisfied with her final


On June 11, it was decided that students from Club Laguna, the

Terraces and California Cove would transfer from Top of the World to

El Morro.

“Public input and realistic district needs were used to make this

final decision,” Daem said.

Lifeguard tower restored for city’s 75th

10To commemorate the city’s 75th anniversary of incorporation on

June 29, a rededication ceremony of Laguna’s restored lifeguard tower

was held at Main Beach.

The preservation project was started 3 1/2 years ago by the

Heritage Committee and the Historical Society with local historian

Andy Alison as the lead.

The lifeguard tower is one of Laguna’s best known landmarks, and

as such, the committees worked diligently to restore the tower to its

original appearance.

“With the restoration, we take the whole thing apart and restore

it back to its original elements,” Alison said.

“We did a renovation to stabilize the lifeguard tower -- always

have to go back to the bones first,” Alison said. “The structural

integrity was lacking, and a good preservationist will always go

there first.”

The majority of the budget went toward refurbishing the tower’s

infrastructure, including re-anchoring and extensive electrical work.

Laguna’s tower dates back to the 1920s.

“Over the years, thousands of lives have been saved from the

tower,” said Craig Lockwood, veteran Laguna lifeguard.