The top 10 stories in Laguna Beach for 2013

Laguna Beach had its share of tragedies and challenges in 2013, from the death of police officer Jon Coutchie in September to Mayor Kelly Boyd announcing in February that he has cancer.

Two men driving to work were killed when another car hit them head-on on Laguna Canyon Road in April. Hundreds of malnourished sea lion pups inundated the Pacific Marine Mammal Center — scientists are still trying to figure out why so many pups washed up on county beaches.

A debate on whether school should start before Labor Day riled some parents, who argued successfully for the calendar to stay the way it is. The Planning Commission approved part of a project to revitalize and shore up a 2-mile underground tunnel that houses a sewer line in South Laguna, and newly appointed Mayor Elizabeth Pearson made a stirring announcement in November that she would not favor a parking structure as part of the Village Entrance project.

Here are the top 10 news stories for 2013.


1) Village Entrance

Nearly two decades in the making, the Village Entrance Project continued to garner much debate in 2013.

At one stage, the development project at Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road called for a pedestrian park and a four-level parking structure to the tune of $42 million, including $29 million from borrowed funds. Opponents claimed it would entice more visitors from surrounding communities to drive to Laguna, adding to the city's traffic challenges.

Then-Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson announced at a November workshop that she would not favor a structure. The council agreed and the current proposal tentatively calls for a landscaped walkway, no structure and, according to the city, no debt.


2) Police Officer Jon Coutchie's death

Laguna Beach police Officer Jon Coutchie was en route to assist another officer while riding his motorcycle late Sept. 21 when he struck a pickup truck turning left from South Coast Highway onto Cleo Street.

Coutchie, who started with the Laguna Beach Police Department in 2009, died at the scene — the first Laguna officer to die on duty since 1953, when a prisoner trying to escape the police station shot and killed Officer Gordon French.

Mourners placed flowers at a memorial shrine on the sidewalk near the intersection, and hundreds of law enforcement personnel paid tribute to Coutchie at Mariners Church in Irvine.

Since Coutchie's death, Det. Larry Bammer has spearheaded a campaign to install a permanent memorial to honor fallen officers at the police station at 505 Forest Ave.


3) Conviction in 2009 murder of Damon Nicholson

An Orange County Superior Court jury on Dec. 20 found Matthew Thomas Dragna, 23, of Lake Forest, guilty of felony special circumstances murder during the commission of a robbery for killing a Hotel Laguna catering manager.

On Oct. 23, 2009, Dragna and Jacob Quintanilla, 25, of Lake Forest, drove together to 40-year-old Damon Nicholson's Laguna Beach apartment. Prosecutors allege Dragna and Quintanilla bludgeoned Nicholson in the torso and on the head with a baseball bat. .

Dragna faces life in prison without the possibility of parole during his sentencing Feb. 28, according to the Orange County district attorney. Quintanilla will be tried separately and has a pretrial hearing scheduled for Jan. 10.


4) Two killed in head-on collision on Laguna Canyon Road

Two men on their way to work died when another car swerved and hit them head-on about 6:45 a.m. April 2 on Laguna Canyon Road, according to Laguna Beach police.

Alberto Casique of Anaheim and Armando Gonzalez of Santa Ana were riding in a Honda Accord heading toward Laguna when a Tesla Model S collided with the Accord, killing the two men instantly.

In November, the Orange County district attorney charged Laguna Beach resident Robert McFarland Pettis with two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and one felony count of driving the wrong way on a divided highway causing death, with sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily harm, according to a news release. Alcohol was not a factor in the collision, according to a district attorney spokeswoman.

Pettis is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 27. If convicted, he faces up to nine years and eight months in state prison.


5) Mayor Kelly Boyd announces he has cancer

During a City Council meeting in February, Mayor Kelly Boyd shared that he has multiple myeloma. Boyd, 69, has since undergone chemotherapy. .

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cell present in bone marrow. Plasma cells normally make antibodies to help fight infections.

In early December, Boyd said his cancer was in complete remission and he was scheduled to undergo a stem cell transplant beginning Dec. 13.


6) School board nixes proposed calendar changes

Acquiescing to parents opposed to a change in the 2013-14 school year calendar, Laguna Beach Unified School District board members decided to stick with tradition and start classes after Labor Day.

District administrators had proposed that students start school before Labor Day because they said teachers preferred using the two days before the holiday as an introduction period. Teachers also said they had large absence rates the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. The proposed calendar would have given students the entire holiday week off.

Some parents disapproved of the calendar change because they claimed vacations would be jeopardized and students working summer jobs would have to make arrangements. Throughout the process, parents questioned the district's communication practices, claiming administrators made a hasty decision.

Board members and administrators apologized and vowed to improve communication.


7) Sea lions inundate Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Staff at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center on Laguna Canyon Road had their hands full early this year with a wave of malnourished, dehydrated sea lion pups.

The center, the only of its kind in Orange County, admitted 293 sick pups from Jan. 1 to April 14, compared with 31 for the same period in 2012. Scientists theorized that the sea lions could have had difficulty finding food.

In other pinniped news, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration started an investigation after a bulldog escaped its owner's control and mauled a sea lion at Goff Island Beach, below the Montage Laguna Beach, on March 23. The alleged owner was the 18-year-old stepdaughter of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.


8) High school will get new tennis courts

The Laguna Beach Unified School District board unanimously voted in August for a more extensive resurfacing project designed to prolong the life of the tennis courts at Laguna Beach High School.

The courts suffered from widespread cracking and were not safe for players, parents said, calling for the district to consider a more permanent solution. Board members decided on post-tension, a process where steel cables within a concrete slab are tightened enough to help prevent cracking for five of the six courts. One court already has post-tension.

The project's estimated cost is $620,000, with the city paying 70% and the district the remaining 30%. Construction is scheduled to begin in May and be completed by late August.


9) Planning Commission approves part of a sewer tunnel project

Planning commissioners supported the South Coast Water District's plan to stabilize an existing 2-mile underground tunnel that houses a sewer line in South Laguna at its Dec. 11 meeting.

The nearly 60-year-old tunnel, which runs parallel to South Coast Highway from Three Arch Bay north to Aliso Beach Park, is in need of repairs to prevent a sewer spill and protect workers, the district said. The district made changes to its original proposal after residents close to a staging area near Fourth Avenue and Coast Highway were concerned about possible noise and traffic.

The California Coastal Commission still needs to approve part of the project under Three Arch Bay, but the district can proceed with the rest of the estimated $90-million project, according to a district spokesman. Work is scheduled to begin in September.


10) Two top school district administrators resign

Deni Christensen and Gerald Vlasic resigned from Laguna Beach Unified School District mid-year as school district officials faced scrutiny from parents who alleged cronyism in hiring.

Christensen, assistant superintendent of instructional services, and Vlasic, director of human resources and communications, were both hired in 2012.

Christensen said she resigned in late June because she didn't want to be a part of the accusations that Supt. Sherine Smith hired people from her former district, Capistrano Unified. Vlasic's reasons for leaving July 1 were not made public.


Darlene Messinger is the new assistant superintendent of instructional services and Leisa Winston the new director of human resources and communications.

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