Emerald Bay residents who asked the city to support their opposition to the proposed installation of a stoplight at the main entrance to the gated community went home empty-handed Tuesday.
The City Council took no action on a request to formally ask proponents of the stoplight that all alternatives be explored to increase safe ingress and egress from the gated community, an unincorporated island pretty much surrounded by Laguna Beach. The $3.5-million project was initiated by the Emerald Bay Community Assn. Board of Directors, with financial support from Emerald Bay Service District board, both elected bodies. County and state approvals must be obtained.
“There are some disadvantages to our residents, sure,” said City Manager Ken Frank. “But we have stoplights at Aster and at El Morro [elementary school] and it really isn’t a huge problem for us.”
Bottom line, Frank said, critics of the project are not Laguna Beach residents, a sentiment that could be heard mumbled by locals at the meeting.
In fact, bay residents are known in normal circumstances to want Laguna to keep its nose outside the gates. However, Emerald Bay opponents of the project said the signal would have a detrimental impact on Laguna drivers and asked for city support.
“I think Laguna Beach should be highly opposed,” Emerald Bay resident Scott McCarter said. “Lots of Emerald Bay residents don’t need it [stoplight] and the few people who use it would inconvenience commuters.”
The project calls for a stoplight that would halt northbound traffic to allow left turns southward out of the main gate to Emerald Bay, which requires pushing the gate back about 40 feet and increasing the width by two lanes that would reduce the size of the entry to Swanson Park by perhaps a third.
“I can understand why Emerald Bay doesn’t like it because of the disruption and it’s taking part of Swanson Park,” Frank said.
“But the part I like is the part they hate: It would be nice to have the entrance pushed back.”
Emerald Bay Service District board Treasurer Bill Hart said southbound traffic would not be impeded by a stoplight and the signal would be inactive if no left turn traffic was coming out of Emerald Bay.
He likened the project to the left-hand turn stoplight from Monarch Bay Plaza onto Coast Highway.
“The project has been beautifully planned,” Hart said. “The consultant is the best in the business. We just want to prevent people being injured or killed.”
County planners are in the process of setting a date for a hearing on whether an environmental impact report or a lesser review will be required to proceed with the project.
Emerald Bay resident Steve Rabago, a former member of the Laguna Beach School Board, said a full environmental report is essential to understand the mitigation required to pursue the project.
“Noise and air pollution are not addressed in a mitigated negative declaration,” Rabago said.
Rabago’s concerns included requests in the submittal to the county for earthquake and slope steepness variances — a legal term for rulings on issues that do not conform to the standard.
“And construction traffic is not addressed in the plan,” Rabago said.
Rabago was one of the three opponents of the project who spoke at the council meeting, seeking council and community support against the stoplight.
Signal opponent Lynn Peterson quoted a report he said came from the city of Phoenix website, which stated that the purpose of signals was to improve the flow of traffic and most times, collisions and severe injuries increase after signals are installed.
“Emerald Bay has four other entrances and exits that are safe — and they [boards] are basing the signal on safety,” McCarter said.
The project also must be given a green light by Caltrans, which must also approve the contractor.
“They don’t let just anybody do the work,” Hart said.
Caltrans would maintain and assume liability for the stoplight after construction, Hart said.
“We are working closely with Caltrans and all indications we have received from Caltrans are positive,” Hart said.
However, Caltrans District 12 spokeswoman Tracy Lavelle, who attended the council meeting for another matter, said the application is under review, but no permit has been issued, contrary to published reports.
No one spoke in favor of the signal, which came up during the public comment period and had not been on the agenda — meaning the council could not have taken action even if it wanted to, unless the request was declared an urgent matter that came up after the agenda was posted.
Frank, who said the city generally likes to stay on good terms with the service district, recommended against taking the requested action.
”What we would like the community to do: if you are not in favor of it [stoplight], then write a letter to the Emerald Bay Community Assn. Board and ask them to explore all other alternatives,” he said. And what did the opponents want the council to do?
“Write a letter to the EBCA and EBSD to ask them to look at all the alternatives to improve the safety of traffic entering and exiting Emerald Bay,” Rabago said.
He said he would like the council to oppose the signal at Caltrans and county meetings and throughout the California Environmental Quality Act process.
“We are continuing to meet with the Emerald Bay Community Assn., the board and service district to explore a more comprehensive solution that includes north-bound traffic flow,” Rabago said. “We are providing them with alternative legal strategies and opinions and securing an independent traffic engineer to recommend alternative safety measures.”