Council delays decision on community garden

City officials want some more information before they fork over a $250,000 windfall to help the South Laguna Civic Assn. buy its fruit and vegetable garden.

The City Council directed staff on Tuesday to dig into the history of the parcels to ascertain if they are free of contamination and hazardous materials left by the dry cleaners that once occupied the site on Coast Highway and don't require remediation. The council also said an appraisal must be completed by a qualified professional to determine the fair market value of the parcels before it decides whether or not to move forward with the financial assistance. The vote was 3-2.

"If the city is behind [the garden] it [it] will be easier to get other donations," said Morrie Granger, an association board member.

The asking price is just under $1 million. The association has pledged to raise the rest of the money.

An alliance has been established with a nonprofit organization, which will conduct the fundraising effort, according to the report by Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson.

Association President Bill Rihn accepted the city's conditions — recommended by staff — which included getting a binding agreement from the property owner not to sell the two parcels for a year. At the end of that time, if sufficient money has not been raised, the city may pull out of the deal.

Among the other conditions: completion of a title search to confirm that the parcels have no unacceptable liens or other encumbrances; satisfaction of California Environmental Quality Act requirements and zoning review; property acquisition standards and consistency with the city's General Plan; as well as the clean bill of health for contaminants and the appraisal.

The association also would have to assume all responsibilities and operational and maintenance expenses for the garden, including insurance and indemnification of the city, under terms of a sublease from the city.

"Most cities don't get a turnkey garden," said South Laguna resident and businesswoman Ann Christoph. "It is a different kind of recreation, but just as valid as tennis courts or Little League fields."

El Morro Elementary School student Odin Flores said he learned to play soccer at Bluebird Park, practiced at Moulton Meadows, and played at Alta Laguna Park. He explored the tide pools at Treasure Island Park, went to a birthday party at Heisler Park and learned how to take care of plants at the garden.

"It would be great if the garden was like the parks so kids like me could enjoy it forever," Flores said. "Please vote to buy the garden.

Flores was one of 23 speakers at the hearing who supported city funding for the garden purchase. No one from the public spoke in opposition.

The city's share of the financing would come from the sale of property accepted from the county as surplus land, originally donated as parkland before South Laguna was annexed by Laguna Beach.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, who voted with Councilman Kelly Boyd against the city funding, said the South Laguna garden is lovely, but she doesn't think it belongs on a commercially-zoned parcel fronted by Coast Highway, not to mention other pressing claims for the money.

"We had a windfall," Pearson said. "We don't get one very often.

"But we have had some unexpected expenses from the 2010 flood. We have set aside $1 million and it will probably be another million," she added.

She also brought up the Village Entrance.

"We want to do a Village Entrance that includes a park for the entire community and we don't know how we are going to pay for it," Pearson said.

Boyd said other neighborhoods might want a share of the windfall for gardens.

"If others want gardens, I am willing to help them, but they have to take steps, do something — we did," Rihn said. "It is not fair to give them money for a dream."

All the garden lacks is city support, according to Rubin Flores, Laguna Nursery owner and volunteer garden consultant.

"Come toil with us," Flores said.

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