Volume 15, Issue 77  |  September 26, 2023SubscribeAdvertise

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Council to consider purchasing different property for South Laguna fire station, pursuing city ownership of county beaches


Tonight’s (Sept. 20) City Council agenda includes several notable projects up for discussion. 

Council will consider: Purchasing property at 31796 South Coast Highway for use as the future fire station #4 and related public use facility; pursuing taking over ownership of all county beach properties; an ordinance amending the city code to enact new regulations for use of city parks and beaches; an expansion of the Laguna Local on-demand transit pilot program; an ordinance related to streamlining the design review process; an ordinance regarding the regulation of wireless telecommunication facilities within the public right-of-way; and enhancements to police, fire and marine safety operations.

In the ongoing search for a location in South Laguna to build a replacement fire station, the city is now working on purchasing another potential site after applying the potential pressure of eminent domain.

During regular business, council will consider the acquisition of 31796 South Coast Highway for use as the future fire station #4 and related public use facility.

The purchase price is $6.1 million ($5.4 million appraised value plus $700,000 for loss of lease revenue), plus related closing fees.

Staff is recommending the council appropriate $1.3 million of the remaining America Rescue Plan Act funding and temporarily borrow $1 million from the Vehicle Replacement Fund for the purchase. The Vehicle Replacement Fund will be repaid once the property located at 31729 Coast Highway (formerly occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone) is sold.

If approved, the action will also authorize the city manager to execute all applicable documents to include, but not limited to, continued due diligence and environmental determination; and direct the city manager, upon assumption of the current lease with the building tenant, to negotiate a termination date to align with completion of design and entitlement process.

The city entered into an agreement with Rincon Environmental to conduct the initial study to determine the proper CEQA determination. This process is currently in progress and the public review period is expected to start on or about September 21, with potential City Council consideration of the determination on November 15.

It is estimated that escrow will close on January 4, 2023 or shortly after.

Council to consider fire station

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The current fire station #4 in South Laguna

The staff report specifically suggests the property for use as a fire station. The age and condition of the current South Laguna station (built in the 1940s), combined with advancements in emergency service standards, have rendered the facility outdated, according to the staff report. 

On September 7, the Planning Commission unanimously determined that the proposed acquisition of the property at 31796 Coast Highway is consistent with the general plan.

Following City Council direction, staff has been working with the property owner, John Mazza, to acquire the site. While direction has primarily been given during closed session meetings over a year of negotiations, the city attorney reported on July 12 that council directed staff to bring back a purchase agreement in an open session and to begin due diligence related to the property.

The property was first listed as an option last year. During the June 29, 2021, council meeting, staff presented a South Laguna property analysis to replace fire station #4.

City staff had multiple discussions with the property owner who “steadfastly” indicated that he is not interested in selling the property to the city, Assistant to the City Manager Jeremy Frimond explained at the June 2021 meeting.

Since that time, the city purchased the property at 31727 Coast Highway (formerly occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone). Although a specific use for the former Ti Amo site wasn’t outlined at the time of the purchase, at the June 2021 meeting Frimond said the Ti Amo property was the most suitable location and had the most potential for a fire station.

Last year, during several contentious discussions and split council votes about the Ti Amo property, the city authorized an agreement to prepare an initial study for the site, found it consistent with the general plan, offered $2.7 million and completed the steps to close escrow

At the same time, staff continued reaching out to the property owner of 31796 Coast Highway.

“31796, at the time, was identified as the preferred property, but the owner was just not interested in selling,” Assistant City Manager Ken Domer said during last week’s Planning Commission meeting. 

In the report for tonight’s agenda item, staff note that 31796 Coast Highway has “several benefits” over the former Ti Amo site. The property mostly flat and commercially zoned, and the site allows for ingress/egress from Coast Highway with a pass-through vehicle bay and egress onto Fifth Avenue.

Now, based on conversations about potential benefits of friendly condemnation and eminent domain, the owner is in agreement to sell, he reported. 

“I…am willing to sell the subject property to the city of Laguna Beach under the threat of eminent domain for the relocation of fire station #4 to serve the South Laguna Beach community,” Mazza wrote in a September 6 letter to the city council.

Eminent domain is the ability of a local government to acquire a property through the courts, while “friendly condemnation” is the act of an agency taking property for public use with an agreement by the owner to move forward.

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There are potential tax advantages for the property owner under IRS code 1033 exchange, which covers “involuntary conversion,” and allows property owners to avoid the tax liability on the property they were forced to sell due to eminent domain or condemnation (or other specific reasons). 

“While the use of eminent domain requires specified procedures, if a property owner is a willing seller, the process for ‘friendly condemnation’ still includes the positive tax advantages for a seller and allows the two parties to process through the acquisition process in a typical, or friendly manner, form of purchase,” the staff report reads. 

The site encompasses three parcels totally approximately 0.4 acre (17,447 square feet).

It’s located at the intersection of Coast Highway and 5th Avenue. The southern side of the properties abuts Coast Highway, the western side is adjacent to a single-family residence leased by the South Coast Water District since 2017, the northern side abuts Virginia Way and the eastern side abuts 5th Avenue. 

There’s also a vacant lot across 5th Avenue which was previously suggested as a possible location for the fire station, but the property owner was unwilling to sell or unresponsive. A few residents previously suggested eminent domain for that location.

If acquired, the city will begin working with the current lessee (which it will assume all lease obligations) and said lease has an initial term expiration of Nov. 30, 2024, with a single five-year extension at the option of the lessee. 

While the city would begin a future design process for a fire station, no development activity is expected until after 2025, if not later. Any future proposed use and development of these lots will be reviewed for consistency with city code and will be subject to public hearings before the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Council to consider aliso beach

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city council will consider taking over ownership of all county beaches in Laguna

Another notable item on the agenda during regular business is the consideration to assume ownership of all county beach properties in Laguna Beach, including Aliso Beach parking and concessions, capital improvements and maintenance responsibility of beach accesses and all marine safety operations.

Council will consider directing staff to proceed with developing an agreement with Orange County by November 15.

After the city annexed South Laguna in 1987, the county continued to operate and provide services for the beaches in the area. Over the years, there has been interest in the city to assume control. 

If the city assumes ownership of the county’s coastal properties and operations, the city’s municipal codes can be enforced consistently with all other beaches in Laguna. 

As part of the council’s 2019 strategic planning and priority setting process, staff was directed to work with the county to investigate assuming marine safety operations in South Laguna. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two jurisdictions began to have more serious discussions of the issue during the past year, according to the staff report. 

In a June 6 memo, the council was updated on the efforts to date, to include that if the county was open to a scenario that met the city’s long-term needs for operations funding, an item would be brought back to council in open session to present the information and gain community feedback and council direction.

On August 17, the county submitted a last-and-final offer of a one-time, lump-sum payment of $22 million to the city for the transfer of all county coastal properties within Laguna Beach, including all county-owned areas of Aliso Beach (including the OC Flood Control District-owned parcel), Camel Point Beach, Laguna Royale Beach, Table Rock Beach, Thousand Steps Beach and West Street Beach.

Estimated total (both marine safety and public works) costs for assuming the beach operations would be $1 million for start-up costs and $2.25 million in annual costs. 

To prepare for the council presentation, staff requested data from the county regarding expenditures for maintenance, operations and ocean lifeguard contractual services. City staff also analyzed the cost increases to provide the necessary staffing, maintenance and operations and capital improvement programming for the new responsibilities. 

The total first year cost also includes one-time investments like uniforms, radios, lifeguard towers, vehicles, safety equipment, trashcans, benches and other supplies.

Staff is recommending to use the $22 million to dedicate specifically for the operational and capital costs in the first 20 years.

Council to consider Heisler Park

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council will consider an ordinance amending city code to enact new regulations for the use of city parks and beaches

Earlier during regular business, council will consider an ordinance amending the city code to enact new regulations for use of city parks and beaches. 

If approved, the ordinance will add to several sections of city code, including: business on city property, golf prohibited, operation of ultralight vehicles and balloons, use of dog parks, baseball at Riddle Field and organized play.

City staff received several concerns from the community related to safety and use in city parks and beaches, according to the staff report for the agenda item. Staff confirmed that the city code “does not include provisions to adequately address these concerns” and is now proposing amendments to codify regulations related to the use of parks and beaches. 

Staff worked with the police department, Friends of the Laguna Beach Dog Park, the Recreation Committee, and other interested community members to understand the issues and incorporated their input.

If approved, the park rules would be legally enforceable.

The proposed amendments include:

–Prohibiting commercial activity on city property, including beaches and parks, without a business license and prior city approval.

–No golfing.

–To the maximum extent permitted by law, no person shall land, release, take off in, or launch any ultralight vehicle (including those commonly known as hang glider, paragliding device, or parasail), or balloon from any city-owned land.

–Limit the number of dogs that each individual can bring into the dog park to three and clarify that owners and/or handlers are legally responsible for their dogs and any injuries to people or other dogs and/or damage that they cause.

–Prohibit hitting of baseballs by persons over the age of 14, unless for a permitted youth baseball activity. Clarify that Riddle Field is intended only for youth baseball play, due to the size of the field and proximity to homes.

–Require organized sport organizations to obtain a permit to use city fields and recreation facilities, but would not limit infrequent, non-organized group play.

–Violations of the beach and parks chapter are an infraction or, alternatively, an administrative citation may be issued pursuant to city code. 

The Recreation Committee reviewed and unanimously approved the proposed ordinance on July 11.

If approved, the ordinance is scheduled for a second reading on October 4 and would become effective 30 days thereafter. 

Also during regular business, council will hear an update and consider expansion of the Laguna Local on-demand transit pilot program.

Council will also consider directing staff to expand the Laguna Local program to serve additional residential areas in North and South Laguna Beach and begin offering the service on Sundays.

If approved, the action will also appropriate $400,000 in the Transit Fund to implement the service expansion and increase the transfer from the Parking Fund to the Transit Fund by the same amount.

The on-demand transit pilot program was approved by council in July 2021 and implemented later in the year. 

“Laguna Local has been well received by residents and is exceeding performance goals,” city staff reported. 

The on-demand program was introduced in direct response to resident feedback, Deputy Director of Public Works, Transit and Parking Michael Litschi explained in a Q&A with Stu News Laguna in September 2021.

Also on the agenda, council will consider: An ordinance related to streamlining the design review process; an ordinance regarding the regulation of wireless telecommunication facilities within the public right-of-way as modified by the California Coastal Commission and, on the consent calendar, enhancements to police, fire, and marine safety operations, including adding staffing positions.

The council agenda is available online here. The regular meeting begins at 5 p.m. 

Members of the public may speak in person in council chambers. A face covering is highly recommended while in the chambers.

To participate via Zoom, you may click here from your computer or smart phone. You may also call 669.900.9128 and wait for instructions. The Webinar ID is 91641723096#. If you have issues getting into the Zoom meeting or raising your virtual hand to comment, you may text the city clerk at 310.722.5051.

The meeting can be watched live on Cox channel 852 or on the city’s website at www.lagunabeachcity.net/agendas

Comments may be submitted on any agenda item or on any item not on the agenda in writing via mail to the City Clerk at: 505 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, CA, 92651, by email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by using this interactive form. Comments were emailed to the City Clerk no later than 3 p.m. on September 19 (the day before the City Council meeting) in order for comments to be submitted to the members of the City Council prior to tonight’s meeting, which provides them sufficient time to review the comments. 

You may continue to provide written comments up to 12 p.m. today (the day of the meeting). While these comments will be provided to the City Council at 2 p.m. today, councilmembers may not have sufficient time to review them prior to the meeting. 


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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