Forum focuses on development

City Council candidates were given a week to bone up on answers to the questions prepared for the Village Laguna forum, held Sept. 16 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

The questions related to issues of particular interest to Village Laguna: neighborhood preservation, a park at the Village Entrance, making Laguna more pedestrian friendly, support for the Downtown Specific Plan, ways to keep downtown businesses successful and how Village Laguna and residents could help. Two additional questions from the audience were tacked on at the end.

"Issues were prioritized at the annual Village Laguna picnic," moderator John Monahan said. "Homelessness came in last."

Monahan said the rules of the forum prohibited the candidates from questioning one another, and he would call the cops if one candidate threatened to take a swing at another.

Former Mayor Ann Christoph and former Design Review Board member and Planning Commissioner Barbara Meztger were in the on-deck circle for Village Laguna after the candidates had their at-bats, prepared to make comments on the issues or candidates statements.

Christoph said the unusual format was developed in hopes of making the forum a positive experience.

Candidates were asked first to prioritize their goals for the next four years if elected, how they expected to accomplish those goals and how the community could help.

The incumbent candidates reprised their past accomplishments, reiterating what they said in opening statements at the Chamber of Commerce Forum on Sept. 15, information available on their websites or in the fliers, before looking to the future.

Kelly Boyd said he wanted to see more of the homeless become eligible for Friendship Shelter — 16 have taken the step toward the mainstream this past year — and to make City Hall more user friendly.

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said she will continue to concentrate on the city's economic welfare, a friendlier City Hall, support for the arts and the preservation of the residents' quality of life.

Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman's goals include undergrounding utilities in Laguna Canyon to ensure a safe egress in case of disaster; year-round free shuttles, at least on weekends to start; and keeping houses "not oversized."

Challenger Emanuel Patrascu listed three goals: revitalizing the local economy, stabilizing the city's budget and public safety.

"That first question is such a softball, so I threw in a twist," Monahan said.

He asked the candidates to share something about themselves the general public wouldn't know.

"When I was 13, I was the first one to win the Brooks Street [surfing] contest," Boyd said. "It was the junior division, and the next year they made me move up to the senior division because I had won. That was wrong."

Pearson confided that her family farmed in the boonies, where she recently spent a bucolic vacation, and the scents of the barn relax her.

"I am addicted to black cherry ice cream, and I have tomatoes growing all over my patio," Patrascu related.

Iseman said she used to smoke in a parking lot between the delicatessen where she worked and Reef Liquor, but it wasn't a secret to Boyd, because he worked in the liquor store and used to meet her for a nicotine fix.

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Neighborhood Preservation

All of the candidates agreed that the neighborhoods must be preserved and they would put an action item in the revised land use element on the Planning Commission's work sheet next year.

"One of the great things about the council is the balance," Pearson said. "We have done a good job coming up with the right compromises on the [Design Review Board] issues before us. "

Iseman credited the Design Review Task Force for recommendations that have made expectations more realistic.

"Why would someone who buys a cottage assume they could turn it into a 6,000-square-foot tract house?" Iseman said.

Patrascu supports neighborhood preservation with the caveat that guidelines shouldn't be set in stone.

"If we had the same standards for everyone, Laguna would look like Irvine, with little box houses everywhere," he said.

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A park at the Village Entrance got four nods.

Parking is needed as well as a park, Patrascu said.

"But it's not going to get done all at once," he opined.

Iseman said parking cannot not be eliminated for a park without replacing the spaces because the California Coastal Commission won't allow it.

She had hoped to see a parking garage constructed in back of the Laguna Playhouse on land owned by the city, but that does not have Playhouse support, Iseman said.

"I have no problem with a park, but I don't want it piecemeal," Boyd said. "All at once is more cost effective. Unless we have a project in place, I don't want to move forward."

Pearson has been hot to trot on the Village Entrance for 14 years, starting when she served on the Planning Commission and throughout her terms on the council.

"The park would take away 167 parking spaces that would have to be replaced in the commercial business district and on Laguna Canyon Road," Pearson said. "Let's hope it gets done in the next four years or before I die."

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A more pedestrian-friendly Laguna

Expansion of the shuttle service to make Laguna less vehicle-oriented was favored by all four candidates.

Iseman informed the audience that the former head of transportation is retiring and the city needs to find a person who will make the department more efficient.

"I am on record that everyone looks cuter out of a car," said Iseman, Godmother of the free trolley service, which she wants to see year-round.

Free shuttles have increased the ridership and that counts toward grants for the city's mainline buses.

Boyd said people want to come downtown for dinner and drinks and take a shuttle home. Some of his customers at the Marine Room Tavern, which he owns, have told him they would be willing to pay a dollar per ride.

"Toni likes it to be free, but if citizens want to pay — God love 'em," Boyd said.

Everyone loves the summer trolleys, but it is an expensive program, Pearson said.

"We need to do more to promote them," she said. "But the key to their success is peripheral parking."

She said the city needs peripheral parking at the city bookends on Coast Highway, in addition to ACT V.

Patrascu, who lives in South Laguna, said he frequently takes the trolley and it sure beats fighting 50 tourists for a parking spot.

"I'd be happy to pay $2 or $3 to ride downtown," he said.

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Downtown

The Downtown Specific Plan is one of the city's sacred cows. It prohibits multi-story development, sets parking requirements, restricts Ocean Avenue to primarily resident serving businesses and limits the operation of mass marketed operations, sometimes incorrectly referred to as chains.

Village Laguna wanted to know if the candidates supported the plan, what the city can do to help businesses and how the group and residents can help.

Patrascu said he partially supports the Downtown Specific Plan — no second stories, but no parking requirements.

"I don't think the plan is working well," Patrascu said. "Ocean Avenue isn't resident serving. As for chains, they can't be banned. That is illegal in California, but they must have a Laguna-specific aspect."

The legal ban is the reason that the city's general plan does not use the term "chain."

Iseman does not favor two stories on Ocean Avenue, fearing some of the small cottages on the expensive property would not survive.

Boyd wants the downtown plan reviewed.

"I have been in business of Ocean Avenue for 23 years." Boyd said. "It is pretty vibrant at my end, but at the other end, one side is just the backs of buildings on Forest Avenue.

He would like the parking requirement evaluated.

"We are losing a lot of [prospective] good businesses because of parking restrictions," Boyd said.

Pearson, who worked on the last revision of the downtown plan 11 years ago, agreed parking is hurting new businesses.

She said residents can help the business community, not just downtown, by shopping locally.

Patrascu said City Hall could help with housing by cutting red tape and eliminating fees.

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Water issues

The second question from the audience asked what steps the candidates would take to provide water to high and dry Laguna.

Pearson said residents need to be better educated about the water districts' guidelines for water use.

"A lot of people still don't get it," Pearson said. "Every council meeting emphasizes the shortage."

Boyd reminded the audience that all of Laguna's water is imported.

"That's why we are participating in a [pilot] desalinization project, which could become critical," Boyd said. "Southern California is a desert and we keep building and building .

Without desalinization, we could go dry."

Iseman said grey water retrofitting is one means of conserving water.

Patrascu, whose main job is working for State Sen. Tom Harmon, said the state provided funding for "de-sal" projects. He recommended installation of "smart" water meters, which do not turn on if the soil is moist. He said the city could offer rebates for water conservation equipment.

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