Confused About LRF Ballot Initiative and City’s Ordinance?

Aug 9, 2022

By Joe Hanauer

If you’re a bit confused about last week’s news regarding City actions to strengthen regulations for large commercial development, you’re not alone.

Contributing to the confusion, a councilmember in his letter to people he’s trying to generate as supporters, references the July 26th Council action as a “Move To Counter Laguna Residents First Ballot Initiative.” As a councilmember engaged in the evening’s debate, he knew this was not a “counter” to LRF. It was a continuation of a pending action actually requested by the very Council he sits on, many months ago.

So, what’s this all about?

Late last year, concerned citizens and I sent a letter requesting the Council review commercial development standards to see if there were opportunities to ensure against over-development beyond what’s already in the code.

The Council responded to our request. City staff was directed to work with the Planning Commission to strengthen the code if warranted. What the Council approved last Tuesday was the thoughtful outcome of those deliberations. The approved ordinance (it actually has a second reading coming up) will provide meaningful assurances that block-long monolithic development cannot occur just as we urged them to do some months back. It also provides for a firm 36-foot height limit for new buildings with nothing…not equipment, rooftop dining or anything else protruding above the 36-foot limit.

Regardless of whether LRF passes in November, and hopefully it won’t, the ordinance will be in place to even better regulate over-development. The ordinance will not be on the ballot in November. It is being implemented now by a majority vote of the Council – a long proven process both in Laguna and elsewhere.

What the authors of LRF don’t seem to understand, or maybe simply don’t want to acknowledge, is that property standards and code regulations are dynamic. They constantly are fine-tuned over time reflecting new housing and commercial real estate concepts as these evolve. ADUs, outdoor dining, the impact of the internet on the size and configuration of retail stores, rooftop and outdoor dining, franchising, distribution facilities – each of these impact land use regulations and design. Cities need to respond.

Laguna’s building regulations have morphed over the past 50 years, changing as these and other influences have emerged. The City’s regs have served us well. Walk around. Where are the large, oversized projects? This is not to say everything is perfect. Periodically something may be approved that shouldn’t have been, but that’s the way democracy works. Mistakes happen, but rarely.

And this is simply one of the major flaws of LRF. It proposes to create regulations that supersede much of what has developed over the past 50 years and unlike the real world where codes are dynamic and need to change from time-to-time, the only way the heavy handed LRF regulations can be changed is if a public vote changes them. A City can’t operate if every time a change is needed a public vote one or two years out needs to occur. And historically the public only votes to overturn things they previously voted for, after years of damage and finally acknowledging that something has gone terribly wrong. Look at Costa Mesa acknowledging the damage its ballot initiative has caused.

If LRF is approved by voters in November, it is sure to be proven wrong but only after years of damaging outcomes. Not only will business neighborhoods continue their unabated aging, but home values will likely be impacted as well.

LRF has promoters camped out at public places over weekends claiming LRF’s only purpose is to stop over-development. Who would oppose that? But it’s simply untrue. Either these proponents haven’t read the LRF document, don’t understand it or are parroting what LRF organizers have told them.

Look at the video of the City Council meeting of July 26 and you’ll see just a few of the serious flaws of LRF. It goes so much further than only stopping over-development.

Joe Hanauer
Laguna Beach

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