Gas hikes hit Laguna hard

Hold on to your steering wheel. Gas price hikes may not be over, especially if Laguna Beach is any indicator.

The city is seeing some of the highest prices in Orange County, with some stations selling gas for as much as $4.69 a gallon, according to orangecountygasprices.com.

"It's probably 30 to 40 cents more expensive [in Laguna], so I try go out of town," said Rosanne Nitti, a real estate agent who lives in Laguna Beach but does business throughout the county.

Nitti, who was driving back to Laguna from Huntington Beach on Tuesday afternoon, said the recent gas hikes have definitely impacted her both personally and in business.

"I try to plan my outings," she said, "especially since I have meetings with clients out of town. I try to plan my shopping around that and plan my routes in advance."

In Orange County, the average is about $4.35 a gallon, with the current national average at $3.84 a gallon, according to orangecountyprices.com.

It's a bit of a seasonal phenomenon, said Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist at Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"Especially in California, there is a definite seasonal pattern with gas prices," he said.

Factors such as winter gas versus summer gas production, which takes some refineries offline — plus the uncertainty of what is happening in the Middle East and the price of oil — are pushing up prices, Kleinhenz said.

Gas prices typically peak somewhere around Memorial Day, hold steady for the high travel season of summer, and then dip back down when kids go back to school and people return to work after vacations, according to Kleinhenz.

But, he cautioned, prices are not as high as the summer of 2008, when the average price for gas in the Southern California region was $4.61, but they've hit consumers harder because of the recession.

And, he added, gas expenses are a relatively small percentage of total household expenditures in America — a little less than 3% — when compared to other expenses, such as groceries and entertainment.

Businesswise, reactions are mixed. Some merchants are not feeling any effects yet, while others have been immediately impacted.

Rarash "Eric" Alavi of Laguna Florist said his is one of the few businesses already affected by the recent gas hikes. But while gas is costlier for the deliveries he does, he hasn't passed on the increase to customers.

"Most florists charge $9 to $12 to deliver locally [within a small radius of Laguna Beach]," he said, adding that he charges $12 for local deliveries. "Customers don't like to pay too high of a delivery fee; they'd rather use the money toward the actual flowers."

If prices continue to go up and hit the $5-a-gallon mark or higher — which they could based on some economic forecasts — then he said he'll slowly have to raise the delivery fee, starting out with 50-cent increases.

Personally, the Irvine resident said he refuses to buy gas in Laguna Beach.

It's "overpriced, so I buy it in Irvine," said Alavi, who has owned the floral shop for seven years.

On top of high prices, several gas stations charge additional fees to use a credit or ATM card, he added.

Laguna commands higher gas prices for a few reasons.

Cities in prime locations, such as a desirable coastal area with expensive real estate and rent — in addition to being tourist destinations — typically see higher gas prices, according to economist Kleinhenz.

Gas stations on "the beaten path, or on the busiest corner in town" or "a quarter of a mile away from the beach" are going to be able to charge top dollar for gasoline, he added.

"The problem is perception," he said. "We fill up our tanks on a more-frequent basis depending on how much we drive. We see a visible price change, and of course we hear about [gas prices rising] in the news and how these hikes are affecting people's ability to buy other things."

Realtor Nitti said that despite driving a smaller BMW, she recently paid $65 to fill up her car.

"It's still a bit of a gas hog," she chuckled.

"I just go with the flow," Nitti said. "I know it's that time of year again and it's an election year."

alisha.gomezberman@latimes.com

Twitter: @CoastlinePilot

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