Our Laguna: Village Laguna continues the height fight

Fear that Laguna Beach would become Miami West or a Waikiki wannabe drove a group of Laguna Beach residents to take on City Hall in 1971.

The City Council had approved a new zone from Broadway to Bluebird Canyon Drive that would allow 100-foot-tall hotels on the city's beaches. A group of locals, already outraged by the city approval of additional height for the Surf & Sand Resort, began fomenting a rebellion that ultimately led to a height limitation not just on the beaches, but citywide. It led to the formation of Village Laguna.

"Both were the crowning achievements of my political life," said Arnold Hano, 89, who chaired the group that became known as the Yes on Aug. 3 Committee. He also served as the first president of Village Laguna. "One fed into the other."

The 40th anniversary of the successful "yes" vote on Aug. 3, 1971, and the council's capitulation the day after, will be celebrated Aug. 29 at Village Laguna's annual picnic at Aliso Beach and proclaimed at a City Council meeting in September.

"We want to remember the important things that make our town special," Mayor Toni Iseman said.

And the who.

"A lot of people who thought of themselves as environmentalists got together, but the core group consisted of Bonnie Hano, Ralph Benson, landscape architect Roger McErlane, Lois and attorney Bill Wilcoxin, Dave and Evelyn Munro, Jon Brand and Phyllis Sweeney, a Realtor who was later to be elected to the City Council and become the city's first female mayor," Hano said.

"The first thing was how can we stop the zone. The city granting the Surf & Sand a variance to add 23 feet in height in a 35-foot zone was a contributing factor, but words like Miami and Waikiki kept bouncing around."

Informed by Benson, who worked in the county counsel's office, that the initiative process could not be used to get the new zone rescinded, Hano asked if the building code could be amended by a vote of the people.

"Ralph came back the next day, all brightened," Hano said.

Benson cited language in the city's code referring to mass and scale, which could be amended to state a citywide maximum height.

"That took it out of being a 'no' vote to being a 'yes' vote, which was very important to us," Hano said. "And it meant we wouldn't have to exhaust ourselves fighting project by project."

The committee began meeting on Tuesday nights in the back of the late David Rosen's art gallery in the 800 block of South Coast Highway.

"Anyone could come in," Hano said. "The door was always open. "

And whatever they did was reported in the then-independently owned Laguna News Post, which opposed the limitation, Hano said.

But when the group sought public support, it was there in surprising numbers. They were able to collect more than 4,000 signatures in support of the height limitation.

"That was more than half of the city's registered voters," Hano said. "Incredible."

The petitions were presented to the council, which by law must either enact the initiative or hold an election to let the voters decide. The council opted to hold an election.

"They thought they could fight the initiative and win," Hano said. "The Chamber of Commerce opposed it. The Board of Realtors opposed it. All the builders in town and I think most of the architects opposed it."

And those groups had influence on the council:

Richard Goldberg was president of the chamber, Peter Ostrander was an architect and Ed Lorr was a hair stylist.

"Roy Holm and Charlton Boyd were more liberal members, but all five were Republicans at the time," Hano said.

The night of the election was one of the great moments in Hano's life, which include seeing Giants center fielder Willie Mays make "The Catch."

"I drove to the three closest polling places and watched them count 10 votes at each site," Hano said. "When the count got to 22 yes's and 8 no's, I knew we had won.

"I went home and made a dry martini and congratulated myself on my good luck."

The council met the following night.

"It was a very subdued council," Hano said. "City attorney George Logan said the ordinance would not stand up in court, but Roy Holm moved to adopt the initiative as an ordinance, making it a city action, rather than a community action."

Subsequently, similar ordinances, including one in San Diego County, were upheld, Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman said.

Since the Laguna initiative was not on the council agenda, approval required a four-fifths vote of the council for approval, Hano said.

"At the next meeting of the (city) Board of Adjustment, of which I was a member, Chris Abel, an architect who was the chair said, 'Congratulations, damn you,'" Hano said.

The "yes committee" was disbanded the day after the council meeting — and Village Laguna was founded there and then, with Hano at the helm.

"It was very loose," Hano said. "We had no bylaws, no dues. We tried to be as informal as possible. We went for consensus like the Quakers.

"I don't like 10-9 votes. Half of the people hate you."

The group has changed over the years. It was incorporated as a California Benefit Corporation and registered as a political action committee.

[This corrects an earlier version that reported Village Laguna is a 501(c)(3) organization.]

However, the members have kept a watchful eye on development — taking up the cudgels when attempts are made to circumvent the revered 36-foot height limit.

"We have continued to be vigilant," Hano said.

He cited the proposals to build a 51-foot-high hotel in Aliso Canyon and an addition to the roof of the Surf & Sand, neither of which came to fruition.

However, changes have been made to the original ordinance that regulated building heights, which denied any variances.

"You can't do that under California law," Grossman said.

The ordinance was supplanted by the Planning Commission during revisions to the city's mansionization ordinance.

Different height limits were created for each zone in town, many of them lower than the original allowance, but all with a maximum of the magic 36 feet, Grossman said.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 380-4321 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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