Signatures moving Village Entrance toward ballot

In less than an hour Wednesday afternoon, Laguna Beach resident Paul Merritt gathered 25 signatures to kick-start his push to put the Village Entrance project on the ballot.

Merritt, clipboard in hand, approached walkers and drivers in a corner of the Ralphs parking lot off Cleo Street.

"We do want parking, just not a four-story," Merritt told one man in reference to the city's proposal, which calls for a 500-space parking structure and a pedestrian park at Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road.

The initiative would restrict the Village Entrance Project by not allowing a parking structure or park at the proposed location, according to a copy of it provided by Merritt.

The initiative would also cap city spending on Village Entrance to $5 million and direct that no revenue from the existing 1,178 existing parking meters be used on the project, the measure said.

The City Council voted 3 to 2 in June to spend $42 million for the project, which has been discussed and debated for the past 18 years.

Studio One Eleven, an architectural firm hired by the city, will present preliminary design renderings during the next City Council meeting, City Manager John Pietig wrote in an email. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers, 505 Forest Ave.

Besides a parking structure and park, the proposed project calls for city maintenance facilities and a sewer lift station, according to the city's website. Overall, the project would add 200 parking spaces in the city.

George Orff, who has lived in Laguna Beach for 17 years, signed the petition Wednesday and said he doesn't want a parking structure anywhere in the city.

"It [would be] unsightly and ugly," Orff said. "I know parking is a problem, but it is what it is. Parking is like [the movie] "Field of Dreams." If they put more parking in, people will come."

Kathleen Brown has lived in the community for 28 years and prefers a more scaled-back approach.

"Laguna Beach doesn't need to have a fantastic thing like [a four-story parking structure]," Brown said. "It's time to be a little conservative."

Merritt has 180 days from the date in early September when the city clerk provided him with the ballot title and summary to submit the required number of signatures.

He needs signatures from at least 10% of the city's registered voters to qualify the Village Entrance Proposal for a potential citywide vote, City Atty. Phil Kohn wrote in an email.

If Merritt collects signatures from at least 15% of registered voters, the City Council must either adopt the original Village Entrance Proposal or order a special election, Kohn said.

The city had 16,344 registered voters as of Feb. 11, when the Orange County Registrar of Voters submitted its report to the Secretary of State, according to the registrar's website.

If Merritt gathers signatures from 10% to 15% of registered voters, the council has three options, Kohn said.

The council could adopt the Village Entrance Proposal, call for a special election or place the proposal on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot, the next scheduled general election, according to Kohn.

Merritt isn't the only person in town pining for a vote on the project.

A group called Let Laguna Vote, a non-partisan community-based organization, claims the project as is would add traffic and may not be financially viable, according to the group's website.

"[Adding a second-level for parking] in the Act V lot could be done at a fraction of the price and [be done quickly]," Let Laguna Vote's website said. "There are government funds for this.

"We believe a project of this magnitude deserves a vote of the people," the site says.

The city is moving forward, even with the possibility of a vote if Merritt collects enough signatures.

In August the city sent out requests for qualifications for a Village Entrance Project manager.

City project manager Wade Brown declined to specify how many companies have responded so far.

"We're saving that [information] for the agenda bill [for Tuesday's meeting]," Brown said. "The concept sketches will be for public review."

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