Proposed changes to an Emerald Bay intersection won approval Tuesday from the City Council, provided the city files a coastal development permit before work begins.
Members voted 3-1 in support of adding a one-foot median to Shamrock Road and lengthening its existing turn pocket onto North Coast Highway.
Expressing doubt that the project would improve safety,
Councilwoman Toni Iseman dissented. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen works for a law firm that has represented the Emerald Bay Service District and recused himself from the vote.
The city will soon send the state Coastal Commission a notice that upon receipt triggers a 10-day appeal process, said Community Development Director John Montgomery.
During that time anyone who participated in the public hearing could appeal the project, as could any two coastal commissioners, Montgomery said.
The permit is a formal notice that the project satisfies certain coastal zone requirements, such as no recreational or coastal scenic resources will be adversely impacted, according to a city staff report.
Council members listened to speakers both for and against the improvements, though opponents outnumbered supporters.
Proponents claimed the changes would enhance safety.
Councilman Kelly Boyd, who switched from mayor to councilman earlier in the meeting [the council voted Elizabeth Pearson as mayor for the next year], preferred the security of obtaining a permit from the Coastal Commission.
"I agree with Kelly that a waiver is a bad precedent," Councilman Steve Dicterow said.
Iseman questioned the project's necessity.
"I don't believe this is going to make this intersection safe," Iseman said. "I'm concerned we are creating things that are less safe. And 30 to 45 days [for construction], who knows how all of the people who try to ingress and egress Laguna Beach will be impacted."
The improvements also include widening Shamrock Road by 14 feet to allow for an additional lane into Emerald Bay, moving the guard shack 40 feet inland and making separate left- and right-turn lanes out of Shamrock Road onto North Coast Highway, according to a city staff report.
Residents at the meeting supported those changes, though some were still concerned that the proposal could be harbinger of a future traffic signal at the intersection — a facet not in the existing proposal.
The project calls for three, 33-foot street lights.
But the conduits for those lights could support a street light but not a signal, City Manager John Pietig said.
Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain assured that the transportation agency has worked with the city and Emerald Bay residents.
"We do not have plans to install a signal at this location," Chamberlain said. "I've given my word in a committee meeting that any suggestion, or any needed improvements, whether it's safety, would be in a collaborative manner. We are not trying to do something behind the council's back. We steadfastly support the project."
As for safety, Pietig referenced a May 2012 report from Fehr and Peers, a traffic engineering firm the city hired to offer opinions about a pending decision on whether to install a traffic signal.
"If a signal is not installed, it would be highly beneficial (to auto safety) to make the other improvements at the main gate, as [lined-up cars] would be less likely to reach North Coast Highway," the report said.
The number of collisions at the Shamrock Road-North Coast Highway intersection does not meet or exceed statewide averages for 2006-2010, according to the report.
"The collision history [2006-2010] shows that this section of North Coast Highway has experienced a collision rate far below the statewide average for similar state highways," the report said.
Proponents have worked for the improvements since 2004, when 19-year-old motorcyclist Aron Negron was killed when a 72-year-old driver struck him while making a left from Shamrock onto North Coast Highway.