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Laguna Beach

District Attorney says City Council majority violated Brown Act in closed session

I received an email from the Laguna Beach Independent newspaper with the headline “Closed-Session Leaks Violated Brown Act District Attorney says.” This headline is at best misleading and at worse, false. 

The letter the District Attorney’s office sent Councilmember George Weiss actually says, “there is substantial evidence that the City Council Members violated the Brown Act with respect to the public notice of the closed session and/or the scope of the matters considered during the meeting.” 

That the City Council majority closed session was illegally violating the Brown Act.

The letter goes on to say that Councilmember George Weiss “potentially violated the Brown Act by also subsequently disclosing to members of the public confidential information obtained during the same closed session.” 

That leaves open the possibility that he did not violate the Act.

The work “leak” in this context is pejorative while Councilmember Weiss was bravely acting as a whistleblower disclosing to the public the illegal actions of the city council majority. That information was rightfully the publics to know as changes to Hotel Laguna permits should have occurred in an open meeting. 

Only four topics are allowed to be discussed in closed sessions: real estate transactions, labor negotiations, personnel issues and litigation. Litigation was not discussed but an update on the progress being made at the Hotel Laguna, and a vote was held on removing the stop work orders. 

How about the Indy finding out answers to what went on? Afterall, the District Attorney office’s letter includes, “For its part, the City Council waived confidentiality with respect to the June 29, 2021, closed session and openly discussed the proceedings during its August 24, 2021, meeting.” 

One important question to ask the City, for example, was Hotel Laguna litigation discussed at the closed session? The closed session’s agenda noticed discussion of litigation regarding Hotel Laguna, but the City Council majority voted to concur with staffers’ decision to partially withdraw a stop-work order at the historic hotel.

It also might be newsworthy to find out what the city council majority plans to do about getting poor legal advice from our city attorney, Phil Kohn, who has been Laguna Beach City Attorney for something like 39 years. At the August 24, 2021, city council meeting, Mr. Kohn maintained his advice was sound on the closed session and there was no need to “cure” the action by redoing the vote at an open public meeting. However, he noted that his firm Rutan & Tucker gave contrary advice.

Johanna Felder

Laguna Beach

Questions and answers about Laguna Residents First ballot initiative

I have been gathering signatures for the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative and have received a number of questions.

Wouldn’t we be having frequent elections?

Hopefully not. If projects follow existing ordinances, and impacts are adequately mitigated, the Ballot Initiative would not be triggered and no vote by the people would be required. 

If the initiative had been enacted five years (ago), only a couple of projects would have triggered a vote by the people, the Dornin Canyon Apartment Building and, perhaps, Coast Inn. 

The fear is that there may be more in the future as Mo Honarkar has proposed a Museum Hotel and a Cleo Hotel built on land by demolishing the existing structures. Hopefully, with the initiative as City law, the city council and developers will moderate their plans realizing that they will need a majority support of the voters.

Don’t existing ordinances specifying maximum height of buildings adequately protect us?

No, there is an overall 36-foot height limit ordinance, however, exemptions can be granted by a majority of the City Council. Note: That existing law requires a much lower height, 12-foot in many very visible parts of downtown, including most property near the beach. 

Thirty six-foot high buildings on lower Forest Avenue and Ocean Avenue would transform the Laguna Beach look into Huntington Beach or what Dana Point is becoming. After all, it was the duly elected Laguna Beach City Council that pushed for and approved the Surf & Sand hotel expansion years ago. How many other Surf & Sand exceptions do you want in Laguna? 

The ballot initiative simply preserves the entire height restrictions that are currently in place; everything from the overall 36-foot height limits including the specified lower limits in place. Ballot Initiative provisions such as this can only be changed by a vote of the residents, not the whims of the current City Council. So, we would be better protected.

Isn’t this one more obstacle to prevent business owners from repairing and improving their buildings?

No. The initiative does not impact businesses in town that desire to repair or refurbish their existing buildings. 

Learn about the ballot initiative, detail information is online at, including Frequently Asked Questions and a Summary of the Ballot Initiative.

Gene Felder

Laguna Beach

Please get vaccinated

A year ago this week, Stu News ran my letter entitled, “200,000 COVID-related deaths.” Despite the fact there was no vaccine at the time, people were hopeful the worst would soon be over. Oh, how wrong they were.

Last Saturday, 670,000 white flags were placed on the grounds of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Each one represented the passing of a mom, dad, brother or sister felled by the virus. Despite the availability of free vaccines now, tens of millions of Americans, many of whom live in Orange County, still refuse to roll up their sleeves.

At last count, COVID is killing nearly 2,000 people a day coast to coast. At this rate, the death toll will reach 750,000 by the end of the year. Clearly, the virus is no joke, so stop treating it like it’s no worse than a cold. Please, please, please get vaccinated. 

Denny Freidenrich

Laguna Beach

Ti Amo not the location for a fire station

“Ti Amo” is Italian for “I Love You.” Maybe that explains the city government’s inexplicable infatuation with Ti Amo as the site for a future fire station. Or park. Or parking lot. Or something. They won’t say for sure what the plan is for the site. Maybe they don’t know. Or maybe they just won’t tell. Some elected officials say we are still considering alternatives, but the staff seems to be going full speed ahead trying to figure out if it can stuff 14,000 sq. ft. of fire station onto a 9,900 sq. ft. site. You know the one about stuffing 10 pounds of stuff into a 5-pound bag. It often ends poorly.

But we now own it. The Ti Amo property. For $2,700,000 of your taxpayer money. In spite of there being no appraisal. In spite of wide-spread neighborhood opposition to the choice. In spite of the fact that a number of better alternatives are available. Including larger unproductive vacant sites where nothing would have to be demolished. And, unlike the Ti Amo site, sites that would meet all the City’s own selection criteria, including the much-preferred attribute of being able to have fire equipment access the Coast Highway from a side street instead of having to pull out and back in directly from the busy Coast Highway. 

But then there’s also the classic, “You always Hurt the One You Love.” Maybe that explains the rush to demolish Ti Amo for a fire station. Or something.

What started as a closed session decision with no public input, led to City Council meetings in June announcing after the fact the decision to buy the site for some yet to be determined use, and another trying to explain its puzzling choice. With no offer by the City government of a neighborhood meeting – like what is suggested as a first step for home remodeling projects – South Laguna Civic Association organized a Zoom meeting for the community asking for community input. The meeting was attended by over 50 participants and city staff. Virtually all comments from the community opposed the selection of the Ti Amo site for use as a fire station, and felt there were better alternatives available. Never-the-less, on September 6, the purchase closed and days later staff was seen, fire engine in tow, wandering the site.

There is widespread support for a new fire station but not at that location. Why isn’t our City government more interested in what the residents want?

John Thomas

South Laguna

Is the school system letter too much?

I am trying to make the community aware of the disaster the school system is trying to create. Attached is a letter sent to families enrolled in Top of the World elementary school. Please help us keep our children from being taught they are racist. We teach our children everyone is equal, brown, black or white. No matter where they live or how much their parents make…everyone is equal. I do teach my children “yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am, please and thank you.” It’s called being kind, human and respectful to all.

Christina Dodge

Laguna Beach

South Laguna Fuel Modification Project problematic

South Laguna conceptual map

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Mike Beanan

Conceptual Perimeter Wildfire Prevention/Suppression Map utilizing high purity recycled water from the Coastal Treatment Plant

Addressing Agenda Item #21

Mayor & City Council,

Thank you for your tireless efforts to prevent and protect Laguna Beach from annual wildfire threats.

As a 40-year resident living adjacent to the South Laguna Greenbelt Urban Fringe Area, I appreciate the careful removal of dead or diseased trees for wildfire protection. However, several aspects of the proposed South Laguna Fuel Modification Project remain problematic.


The steep coastal terrain surrounding the project area is unique to Laguna Beach in forming a relatively undisturbed virgin habitat for globally endangered South Maritime Chaparral and the wildlife depending upon this area for foraging and shelter. Native vegetation remains green due to the adaptive ability of plants to be “fog feeders” capturing marine layer moisture throughout the year. Native plants and trees add a protective natural oil layer to retain moisture during scorching summers. Consequently, routine hiking surveys and historical records have yet to discover any evidence of massive wildfires.

The City’s Fuel Modification Guidelines adopted in 2005 and again in 2010, reflects development standards common in all surrounding South County communities and the Orange County Fire Authority to maintain a graduated, multicut, biomulched series of Fuel Modification Zones (FMZs) rather than fire breaks on steep, inaccessible hillsides. FMZ A & B are designated to be routinely irrigated to maintain safe hydration as a preventive measure and first line of defense during a wildfire event. Despite multiple requests for a perimeter wildfire water suppression system, the Fire Department and South Coast Water District have failed to consider the obvious multiple benefits of an independent, high purity recycled water system among strategies for long term protection of South Laguna and the City as a whole. Simply stated, water prevents and suppresses fire. To date, there has been no application of the City’s 2005 Fuel Modification Guidelines in South Laguna to provide an independent source of new water within the prospect of a projected, long-term drought.

Unintended Consequences

The proposed project to dramatically remove native vegetation to achieve proposed spacing requirements on steep, South facing hillsides will exacerbate wildfire threats. De-vegetated terrain exposes the fragile soil mantle to harsh sun to elevate surrounding ambient temperatures and dehydrate remaining plants and trees. Native groundcover significantly shades and cools soil temperatures while stabilizing slopes during storm events. Removing vegetation achieves the opposite result to increase soil erosion and silt covering protected tide pools in Laguna Marine Protected Areas.

Exposed soils also add to the urban heat sink. Remaining trees limbed up to mitigate fire ladders unintentionally exposes the tree’s trunk to harsh Southern sun and intense afternoon ocean glare to scorch trees that eventually die, thus adding to wildfire threats. Exposed soils invite introduction of dry, brown grasses and future ember alleys accelerating the spread of wildfires. Evidence of this dynamic is clearly visible among hillsides previously grazed by goats or manually de-vegetated.

Removing native vegetation will diminish the City’s dedication to address Climate Change impacts and opportunities for achieving carbon sequestration goals. Native plants store carbon and mitigate warming temperatures through ground shading. Plants also add oxygen to the environment. The proposed project will dramatically reduce the ability of the Greenbelt to add environmental and economic benefits to the community. Studies by real estate experts have shown, nature reserves add as much as 19 percent to adjacent property values and the benefit extends throughout a surrounding neighborhood.

In addition to unintended environmental impacts, education programs present a false equivalency to promote aggressive de-vegetation. Comparing South Laguna, for instance to the Paradise Wildfire is disingenuous since the community of Paradise is a collection of mobile homes surrounded by expansive forests clustered together with propane tanks supplying fuel and energy. South Laguna, in contrast, is a coastal area with well-maintained homes lacking outside propane tanks near an abundant supply of recycled water infrastructure.

South Laguna’s small streets present another challenge for wildfire threats. Fire Department trucks appear to be typical of modern suburban communities with wide streets as opposed to more compact trucks typical among forested communities with limited access. The present policy to protect Fire Department personnel and equipment is understandable but can mean large urban designed equipment will not be able to enter a compact older neighborhood to suppress wildfires. In effect, residents are left on their own to combat approaching embers responsible for spot fires.

During the 1993 Laguna Wildfire, I was among residents who formed a hasty fire watch network to use water to suppress embers in North Laguna and save numerous homes. The wildfire subsequently, avoided Cliff Drive homes and jumped five lanes of Coast Highway to burn homes in Emerald Bay.

The present plan for significant de-vegetation of steep hillsides will introduce a greater wildfire threat by adding large areas of highly flammable brown grasses requiring expensive maintenance and future habitat rehabilitation.

A 30-Year Plan

California will experience a series of severe drought conditions over the next 30 years. Wildfire threats can be addressed with a systematic long-term approach utilizing available unallocated supplies of new, independent water resources coupled with prudent, routine grooming of the Greenbelt urban interface.

South Coast Water District has reclaimed water lines along Coast Highway with outlets installed to supply recycled water to Mission Hospital and other clients. Increasing delivery of recycled water to hillsides above Mission Hospital is essential to protect this critical First Response facility. Extending the recycled water line to the proposed project areas will add additional moisture to maintain safe hydration of native plants and be a determining factor in suppressing an on-coming wildfire. Irrigated FMZs, a common feature in all surrounding cities, is a development standard presently ignored for consideration in the proposed project area.

Title 22 recycled water is an independent resource to significantly add more water before and during a wildfire event. This feature allows Fire Departments full access to potable water supplies otherwise tapped by individual homeowners seeking to suppress ember showers. Recycled water, however, can be problematic for firefighters since latent Constituents of Emerging Concern (CECs) are likely vaporized and inhaled during high heat fire events. Fortunately, compact water filtration units strategically placed can polish recycled water to potable standards and distribute this new water to FMZ A & B to protect firefighters and homeowners from CECs.

Additional independent supplies of high purity “new water” will maintain a green buffer zone next to homes while reducing the burden of ever-increasing insurance rates. Just as interior sprinklers can mitigate fire insurance costs, an independent supply of new water will allow homeowners to negotiate reductions in insurance rates. Interviews with firefighters reveal their preference to enter vegetative areas that are green rather than brown.

Generous State and Federal grants are now readily available for recycled water infrastructure to address wildfire and drought conditions. Studies have shown, as much as ½ of water demands can be met with recycled water supplies. The City of Laguna Beach remains the only city in South Orange County lacking recycled water despite surrounding older cities, like Dana Point, with a robust recycled water infrastructure. More recycled water upcycled for wildfire prevention and suppression presents the added benefit of reducing ocean discharges of Laguna’s 1.87 million gallons per day of secondary sewage adjacent to State MPAs.

Going Forward

Wildfires will continue to threaten the well-being of South Laguna for the next 30 years or more and should be addressed as a long-term public infrastructure program. Extensive wildfire fear campaigns diminish a thoughtful approach to prudent planning and adds unintended consequences to increase wildfire conditions. Drought mandates requiring less use of potable water supplies will add additional stress to native vegetation already suffering from known anthropogenic impacts to climate change.

Following the devastating San Francisco Earthquake 100 years ago, city planners introduced large cisterns among street intersections throughout the city’s steep terrain as a pre-emptive measure for any future fire event. Laguna Beach should consider a similar system to take advantage of gravity in storing and distributing water for wildfire prevention and suppression.

The proposed project needs to incorporate a long-term plan to create a green zone instead of a Brownbelt and access readily available high purity recycled water along Coast Highway as one of the best measures to protect and preserve the many benefits of the Laguna Greenbelt to our community. Water puts out fire and:

“Without water, a firefighter is just a spectator” – Retired Laguna Beach Firefighter.

Thank you for reviewing and incorporating my comments and recommendations to the South Laguna Fuel Modification Project. 

Mike Beanan

South Laguna

Plant Man Column

“All doors open to courtesy.” –Thomas Fuller

Ordinarily, I would attempt to wax poetic in this space about our City Hall’s Mediterranean Revival Style architecture, replete with its distinctive, scrolled rafter tails and other details envisaged by Aubrey St. Clair. And, of course, honor the adjacent and stalwart California Pepper (Schinus molle), which was originally planted as a homesteading requirement during Laguna’s pioneer days.

Letter Kawaratani

Click on photo for a larger image

Laguna Beach City Hall – 505 Forest Ave

But today, I would like to offer the perspective of someone who has lived here for a lifetime and is involved in the property development process. It is a poorly kept secret that Laguna Beach is a terrific place to visit and live, and not coincidentally, our property values continue to soar. 

Planning review is often a complex and lengthy process in any jurisdiction, and Laguna Beach is no exception. Most applications are required to transit through the planning review process to ensure project feasibility within the constraints of the Municipal Code and General Plan. The process has the added scrutiny of the Design Review Board, which ensures compatibility with City standards.

The COVID-19 lockdown created an opportunity to reimagine our homes and fueled a desire for improvement projects. The flood of planning and permit applications to the City’s Community Development Department is near historic levels, while staffing levels remain basically static. The number of projects under review by each planner has doubled, and in some instances, even tripled.

Marc Wiener, the Director of Community Development, and his staff are actively transforming their workplace for more efficient and effective operations and additional planners are being added. This will translate to faster review times during the project application process.

During this period of transition, please consider your actions when you’re at the Community Development counter. Courtesy, kindness, and understanding go a long way in making a difficult job easier for everyone. Good projects get approved; please practice patience! See you next time.

Steve Kawaratani has been a local guy for seven decades and likes to garden and drive the Baja Peninsula. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (949) 494-5141.

Steve Kawaratani

Laguna Beach

Councilman Peter Blake calls Johanna Felder a liar

Your readers should be interested in an exchange of emails that I recently had with Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake.

August 27, 2021, Gene Felder email to Peter Blake:

Councilman Peter Blake,

At the August 24, 2021 City Council meeting, from the dais, you interrupted my wife Johanna Felder from providing public input and called her a liar.

Johanna has a stellar reputation for honesty. What are you referring to?

Your conduct is an addition violation of the City’s rules of decorum and civility, as well as Robert’s Rules of Order. I would appreciate for you to retract your inappropriate comment.

Gene Felder

August 30, 2021, Peter Blake email to Gene Felder:

Gene, actually I waited until Johanna was done with her testimony and then questioned her. I did not interrupt her. I did not call her a “liar” 

Her “stellar reputation for honesty”?

I have the right to question anyone spinning the facts whether its you, your wife, the president of PAC Village Laguna or any activist. If you feel I violated the City’s rules of decorum and civility and/or Robert’s Rules of Order, then I suggest you get one of my colleagues to file a censure.

I will NOT be retracting any comment.


September 2, 2021, Gene Felder email to Peter Blake:

Perhaps this will refresh your memory. [Referring to audio file that was attached from city council meeting]

Your conduct is an addition violation of the City’s rules of decorum and civility, as well as Robert’s Rules of Order. I would appreciate for you to retract your comments.

Gene Felder

September 3, 2021, Peter Blake email to Gene Felder:

Thanks for refreshing my memory Gene!

It gets difficult sometimes to keep track of all the lies that Village Laguna puts out.

To refresh your memory, I mentioned I will NOT retract my statement and that you should have me censured. Maybe George or Toni can get the ball rolling for you lol!!

Have a great day!


September 7, 2021, Gene Felder email to Peter Blake:

You missed the point. The voice memo from the City Council meeting that I sent you clearly shows that my claim that you called my wife Johanna Felder a liar is true and correct.

And that your statement “I did not call her a ‘liar’” is false and incorrect.

The transcript of the voice memo is as follows:

Johanna Felder: “I’m very upset. Peter speaks to people in such a way that is intimidating and I am really upset”

Interrupting Councilman Peter Blake: “Maybe if you don’t lie when you testify, I won’t speak to you that way”.

Johanna Felder: “Peter, stop that. I do not lie.”

Mayor Bob Whalen: “Peter, do not call speakers liars, they get to offer the testimony that they want to offer.”

Please note that the Mayor of Laguna Beach’s comments included “Peter, do not call speakers liars.”

Your conduct is clearly a violation of the City’s rules of decorum and civility, as well as Robert’s Rules of Order. I would appreciate if you would retract your statements regarding my wife’s veracity.

Gene Felder

One should expect Mr. Blake to at least be responsible for his statements.

Gene Felder

Laguna Beach

Who said that school boards aren’t political?

LBUSD should be ashamed of their attitude and vote to basically do nothing about our school children except to “possibly” create a contrived testing platform.

Current vaccine mandates in school districts nationwide:

--Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis


--Measles, mumps, and rubella

--Hepatitis B


Someone needs to explain to me why COVID should be exempt from having a vaccine injection mandate at all Laguna Beach and Orange County schools (for those eligible at this time) as it’s already killed nearly 4,550,000 people worldwide. If one child dies or becomes gravely ill, you should all be incarcerated.

Samuel Goldstein

Laguna Beach

Seat belt mandates vs COVID vaccine mandates

Back in the early 1980s, when Michigan state representative David Hollister introduced a seat belt bill that would fine drivers for not buckling up, opponents compared him to Hitler. At the time, only 14 percent of Americans regularly wore seat belts, even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required them in all new cars starting in 1968.

In his piece, “When new seat belt laws drew fire as a violation of personal freedom,” author Dave Roos wrote the following: “Drivers and passengers complained that seat belts were uncomfortable and restrictive, but the objection to mandatory seat belt laws mostly was ideological. One of Hollister’s colleagues in the Michigan House called his seat belt bill ‘a pretty good lesson in mass hysteria created by a corporate-controlled media’ and warned that the government would outlaw smoking next. Another said that anyone who voted for the bill should be recalled. Clearly, the battle over seat belt laws in 1980s America reflected widespread criticism of government regulation in a free society.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Today, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers are making similar arguments when it comes to the COVID pandemic. They believe the Federal Drug Administration’s science is flawed just as people once thought the NHTSA’s was. If that wasn’t enough, they also believe the Constitution guarantees them the right to remain unvaccinated and unmasked.

So how did people come to embrace seat belts? In a word, they were mandated. If you ask me, that’s the only way we are going to overcome the devastation caused by COVID now.

Despite President Biden’s constant urging, approximately 80 million Americans still refuse to get vaccinated. At first, I thought financial incentives, like discounts on groceries or income tax breaks, would encourage reluctant citizens to change their minds. When that didn’t work, I began asking former President Donald Trump to speak up. Unfortunately, his public pleas seem to have fallen on deaf, mostly Republican, ears. Which brings me full circle back to seat belts. Because of seat belt mandates, Americans’ behavior has changed dramatically over the years. Today, virtually no one – from first-time teenagers behind the wheel to young parents to grandparents – would think about driving a car on Laguna Canyon Road, Park Avenue, or Nyes Place without buckling up. And when you add a 5-year-old to the equation, I’m guessing 99 percent of Laguna’s drivers believe it is a serious crime not to buckle up that little one in the back seat. 

In my opinion, each of us has the right to decline a tetanus shot. Why? Because that decision only impacts one person (i.e., he or she who stepped on that rusty nail for example). You can’t say the same thing about a COVID shot. Plain and simple, millions of lives are at stake. For those who already are vaccinated, I say thanks. To those who aren’t, listen up: Because you have refused to voluntarily roll up your sleeve, your shot is going to be mandated.

Holding up a copy of the Constitution won’t do you any good, nor will protesting at Main Beach. As far as I am concerned, you have no one to blame for your lot in life now. When it comes to getting vaccinated, you brought this mandate on yourself. 

Denny Freidenrich

Laguna Beach

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