Traffic signal: Boon or bomb?

City officials are conflicted about a request to support a traffic signal at Emerald Bay's main gate and its effect on North Coast Highway traffic.

The City Council voted Tuesday to hire a traffic consultant to determine whether the signal Emerald Bay officials insist is needed for safe ingress and egress to the unincorporated gated community will be a boon or a bomb for Laguna Beach drivers.

"We are being asked to decide an issue that affects our community differently than their community," said Mayor Jane Egly, who served with Councilman Kelly Boyd on the subcommittee that met with city staff and Emerald Bay representatives.

The Emerald Bay Homeowners Assn. board is in favor of the signal, which, if approved, would be installed at Coast Highway and Shamrock Road to control southbound traffic exiting Emerald Bay.

"There is a signal at [Stop N Go] and a signal at El Morro school, but there is nothing between," said Emerald Bay resident Michael Jones, among the 19 speakers on the proposed signal.

Cars go 50 to 60 mph on that stretch.

"When you go out the gate, you are scared," Jones said. "I have been scared for 34 years. Please put in the signal."

City concerns about the project include the visual blight of the stoplight, increased emissions and noise from the stop-and-go traffic, as well as the possible impediment to through traffic.

"North Coast Highway is one of three ways out of Laguna in an emergency, and one of two ways out if Laguna Canyon Road is closed or clogged," said Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson, who was speaking as a private resident. "And if Emerald Bay wants to play in our sandbox, it should become part of the city and pay our taxes. They only come to us if they want something."

Opponents of the signal claim convenience is the driving factor.

"Emerald Bay doesn't want to take the time to get out safely," said Laguna Beach resident Marni Magda. "[The signal] would be faster for them and ruin it for us."

Signal opponent Dr. Alan Mertherall said more than convenience is at stake.

"We feel it is our civic duty to the people of Laguna Beach because they are the ones who are getting hurt," Mertherall said.

A Caltrans study and follow-up letter supports the contention that the signal will improve safety. However, the number of accidents at that location does not qualify the signal for state funding. Emerald Bay will pony up the $2.7 million for the project, which also includes renovations inside the gates, approved by the county.

Of most interest to Laguna residents is Emerald Bay's agreement to open gates close to construction sites to reduce the stacking that stops traffic in the mornings; requiring construction projects to provide parking inside the gates or at the construction site; and to penalize violators — actions that some critics said are long overdue but are no justification for the signal.

If the signal is not approved by Laguna Beach, Caltrans will deny the entire project.

"It is a safety issue," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson. "I lean toward public safety, but we are not traffic experts and most of our constituents are opposed to the light."

Ninety percent of about 200 city residents who responded to a recent survey oppose the signal, according to Boyd.

Pearson said residents also opposed the stop signs as the top of the Third Street hill and later thanked the city for installing them.

"This is more difficult than the Third Street hill," said Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger. "If it didn't work, we could change it. We can't change this if it doesn't work."

The Caltrans study and two other traffic studies, paid for by Emerald Bay, will be submitted to the city's consultant to be reviewed along with the impacts on Laguna Beach.

"We are conflicted," Boyd said. "An independent analysis would make me feel a lot better — a reason to jump off the fence."

The study will be back to the council in May. Emerald Bay was not asked to pay for the study, for which $15,000 was appropriated.

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