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In this recap we report on Fuel Modification Treatment Protocols and Laguna Canyon Road Project (Undergrounding). The Facilities Master Plan was deferred until the next Council meeting, January 23, 2024. 



Notable Items from Public Comments


GW: Not many public comments at the first Council meeting of 2024.  Only three people spoke, Erin Slattery of the LB Chamber announced a ribbon cutting for the new radio station, and April 2nd is the date for the State of the City event hosted by the Chamber. Matt Lawson congratulated Bob and Sue for their election as Mayor and Mayor Pro-Tem.



Item # 13: Review of City’s Fuel Modification Treatment Protocols, Passed 5-0


From the staff report: “Residents have expressed concerns regarding herbicide use in the City’s fuel modification program and asked the City Council to consider alternative protocols.” Five treatment options were presented with the Council choosing to transition to mechanical treatment, i.e., weed whackers and mowing by hand crews, in lieu of using Roundup. Mechanical treatment will increase the annual cost from $528,000 to $1,386.00 for all zones. The staff report also says that the mechanical method could achieve passive restoration* to native plants but may be less effective in achieving passive restoration than using Roundup. [*Passive restoration means cutting back invasive plants so that native plants have the room to replace them.]


Public Comments:
This item took 2 ½ hours and a total of 52 residents spoke or called in. Another 32 emails were also received by Council. An overwhelming majority supported a complete ban on using herbicides for Fuel Modification. Those that didn’t support a ban on using herbicides expressed concern that the mechanical treatment would not eliminate invasive plants, which are more flammable and prone to choking out native plant growth.


Congratulations to the residents (comments attached) who showed up or wrote the Council to consider non-chemical options and pursue creating an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM). See more about what an IPM is here:,As%20defined%20in%207%20U.S.C.

Kudos also to the City of Laguna Beach’s Environmental and Sustainability Committee for making their recommendations to Council a few months ago to spearhead getting this topic on Council’s Agenda. 


GW: In 2020, Bayer, the manufacturer of Roundup, paid $11 billion dollars to settle legal claims for health impacts allegedly caused by Roundup. There are an additional 44,000 legal claims still unsettled. It appears clear that Roundup can cause serious health problems when proper protocols are not followed. 


The County of Orange, The State of California and Federal government agencies all use Roundup and other herbicides to control the spread of invasive plants. It’s important to note that the use of Roundup by these agencies takes place far from residential areas. Laguna’s Fuel Modification Zones are generally closer to homes, parks and at least one school, so out of an abundance of caution and due to the overwhelming support for a ban sponsored by residents, I and the rest of Council voted for mechanical treatment over the use of Roundup. Council reserved the right to use Roundup under some very strict conditions, and thus a balanced approach was achieved. 


While not everyone is happy with the outcome, it’s good that we are trying methods that do not include using chemicals. Let’s see how this works as the Council will be reviewing the results in early 2025. 


Item # 14: Laguna Canyon Road Update and Next Steps, Passed 5-0


Background — From my Council Recap of November 15, 2022: 
Council approved spending $810 thousand dollars for design of the roadway and utility undergrounding for Laguna Canyon Road (LCR) between El Toro and the Southern California Edison (SCE) substation, ¼ mile west of Canyon Acres Road. City Staff will also be submitting a federal grant application for $32 million, but the City would also have to provide $14 million in matching monies. (GW Update: The above-mentioned Federal grant was denied.) The $14 million of the City’s contribution could be reduced by as much as $3+ million if SCE supplies those funds. Grant funding is never certain so the amounts above could change.  

City Staff said that $47 million would be enough to underground LCR. The designs SCE completes should help us get more precise estimates of the costs for redesigning and undergrounding LCR. (GW Update: That turned out to be woefully short based on updated estimates)


Other plans include taking over Laguna Canyon Road from Caltrans which would allow the City to make improvements to make this road safer.  

Background Update:
The main ask of this item was to direct the City Manager to submit a Relinquishment letter to Caltrans to negotiate transfer of Laguna Canyon Road to the City. The total cost just 1 year and 2 months later for this project is now $105 Million dollars. This would include the cost of building a bike/walking pathway. Added costs for maintenance are estimated to be $200,000/year. 


A much higher cost, which has not yet been accurately estimated, is the liability costs for accidents occurring on Laguna Canyon Road. Deputy Director of Public Works, Tom Perez, said the average liability cost for an accident on state-controlled highways that involved fatalities was $11 million, but he didn’t have an estimate for the liability costs for injuries. Over the last 10 years there have been five fatalities on LCR, and we have multiple injuries each year from car accidents, so the liability costs cannot be ignored in the cost/benefit analysis. We need to know how many accidents involving injuries have occurred during the ten-year period to include with the cost information we have for fatalities during that period.  One of the goals of taking over LCR is to make it safer. However, the cost of achieving that goal by redesigning and undergrounding LCR is unknown.  


So, there is a lot to be sorted out, especially finding the $105 million to complete this project. Mayor Pro-Tem, Bob Whalen thinks we can get the money through grants, while Public Works Director, Mark McAvoy declined to estimate the amount grants would bring in. There is a grant available from the SCE for undergrounding the distribution lines, but this would be in the neighborhood of $25-30 million. How would we raise the additional $75-80 million? 


GW: While I support undergrounding on LCR we need to budget for such a “once in a lifetime” expenditure. We spent $23 million for St. Catherine’s School, and it has been largely unused except for the gym. We spent another six million on the S. Laguna Fire Station site, and the building will cost just as much. A new fire station is also being proposed at the Village Entrance and the Fire Department is asking for consideration to add 12 firefighters. Finally, a proposed parking structure at the Village Entrance is expected to cost $12 million or so. Finally, we have added a lot of employees to the payroll, somewhere between 20-30 and these cost us in the neighborhood of two million annually in additional costs. The City has spent a total of $43 million so far without adding in the costs for design and parking changes to St. Cahterine’s School for community use, building a new fire station in South Laguna and another at the Village Entrance, adding 12 firefighters, and the costs of redesigning the Forest Promenade.  Can the City pay for all these commitments as well as the takeover of Laguna Canyon Road (LCR)?  Shouldn’t we be prioritizing our financial commitments? 


Conclusion: I am not convinced that we need to take over LCR to carry out undergrounding. Before approving the takeover of LCR, including all improvements, we need to flesh out all the costs and how we would pay for those costs. Doing this requires a traffic and mobility analysis that pinpoints any other risks involved in building a walking/bike path, the cost of traffic calming measures including redesigning LCR to lower the risk of accidents, a reasonable estimate of what grants we might be able to secure, and consideration for an alternate plan. 



Some of my goals for 2024: 


1. Work on transparency and rules that hold City Staff and Council



2. Improve processes for Design Review Board (DRB) and Planning Commission (PC) which reduce appeals and keep neighbors friendly.


3. Climate Action Plan – Electrification, Solar, Recharging. Consider joining Orange County Power Authority.


4. Affordable Housing: Continue to work on financial mechanisms for funding affordable housing. One such mechanism is a tax on vacant homes not rented out. There are over 2,000 of these in Laguna Beach.


5. Consider moving Water Quality to S. Coast Water and Sewer District or to Laguna Beach County Water District (LBCWD). Consider spinning off LBCWD at an independent agency or merging it with S. Coast Water and Sewer District to reduce the number of sewage spills into our community’s beaches.


6. Keep the Promenade from becoming a food court.


7. Find a mechanism for funding the purchase of Open Space. Consideration for joining Natural Communities Coalition.


8. Pet project: Native Plant demonstration garden to encourage residents to use native plants and plant a native garden at a prominent public space.


Let me know what you would like me and the City Council to work on.  We’re here to serve you.


All representations made in this email reflect the views of the author and are not official statements of the City of Laguna Beach or City Council.
Any mistakes or  omissions are the sole responsibility of the author, George Weiss. No public funds were expended on this website.

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Disclaimer: All representations made in this email reflect the views of the author and are not official statements of the City of Laguna Beach or City Council. Any mistakes or omissions are the sole responsibility of the author, George Weiss.


Have a question about city government, need a document, or help finding the right person to talk to or anything else, please know that our City Clerk, Ann-Marie McKay is there to assist you professionally and capably. Email: or call 949-497-0309

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