Council will work on improving safety outside Emerald Bay

Plans to install a stop light at the entrance to Emerald Bay hit a roadblock Tuesday.

The City Council voted unanimously to work with Emerald Bay to take measures to improve safety for vehicles along the stretch of North Coast Highway by the main gate of the community, but stopped short of approving a request to exempt the proposed traffic signal from coastal development permit requirements.

"This will slow us down, but it will happen," said stop light supporter Harry Woloson after the emotional, two-hour hearing ended.

Woloson was one of 32 speakers who spoke at the hearing for or against the stop light, over which the city has permit jurisdiction.

Additional proposed improvements include changing gate operations to reduce queuing that ties up the left-hand, northbound lane; moving the main gate's guardhouse 120 feet inland from the highway; and increasing the length of the southbound turning and acceleration lanes.

Improvements inside the gates are within the county's jurisdiction.

Emerald Bay is unincorporated county land, surrounded by, but not part of, Laguna Beach. And it doesn't want to be — something that offends many Laguna residents.

"Everybody in the city of Laguna Beach opposes this light," said Patrick Wiseman, who was roundly booed by signal supporters. "Emerald Bay, the elite gated community, locks us out. If the light is approved, the gates should come out and the beaches opened to the public."

Emerald Bay officials declined to commit to closing a gate that exits into a North Laguna neighborhood as gesture of goodwill, when asked by Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson.

Pearson said she was shocked at the animosity toward Emerald Bay expressed in letters, emails and phone calls from Laguna Beach residents, two thirds of whom opposed the traffic signal.

"They were the most vitriolic communications I have received in my 16 years on the Planning Commission and City Council," Pearson said.

And the most on any single issue.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said the majority of the more than 400 folks who contacted her were Emerald Bay residents, about evenly divided for and against the signal.

Fourteen speakers at the hearing favored the light, citing safety as the primary reason.

"Our son was the last one to die there," said an impassioned Paula Negron, as her son's photograph was shown as part of a slide presentation. "I don't want that to happen to anyone else.

"Eight years after his death, we are here to make a difference. I don't want anyone else to be me."

David Horne was president of the Emerald Bay Community Assn. in January 2004 when Aron Negron was killed.

"Very shortly after this accident we began our current effort to make [Coast Highway] through North Laguna safer, so an accident like the one that took Aron from us, would be a thing of the past," Horne said "We are still waiting for that day and accidents are still happening — 17 in recent years."

Caltrans spokesman James Pinheiro said the signal would enhance safety. However, the number of accidents does not reach the threshold — five fatal or serious accidents in a year — for Caltrans to pay for the installation of a signal, although it supports the project, he said.

Caltrans has agreed to maintain the signal, but Emerald Bay has committed to pay for it.

Other suggested improvements won't be approved by Caltrans without the signal, said Nyes Place resident and former Orange County Planning Director Tom Matthews.

Woloson said the improvements would benefit Laguna Beach drivers and commuters from other cities who use the highway daily.

"Drivers heading north on [Coast Highway] will be protected from serious or fatal T-bone accidents because hazardous left-hand turns out of and into Emerald Bay would be signalized," he said.

Woloson also said southbound drivers on Coast Highway will be less at risk from being side-swiped because the merge lane would be four times its present length.

"The light will make it safer for all Laguna Beach residents and everyone else who drives past Emerald Bay," said Keri Ueberroth.

Improvements other than the signal, if implemented by a cooperative effort between Laguna and Emerald Bay, will be monitored, but for how long was not specified.

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