A year into the pandemic, Laguna Beach celebrated reopenings and confronted some setbacks in 2021. Community members eagerly read about Hotel Laguna reopening the doors to its first floor and art festivals restarting after a year off because of COVID-19. The Independent also delivered timely, essential updates on the Orange County oil spill and firefighters efforts’ to contain a June brush fire that could have spread quickly. Here’s a round-up of several of our most-read stories from the past year.
Hotel Laguna Partially Reopens
Hotel Laguna’s restaurant and lobby reopened with a fresh look on Oct. 12 after being shuttered for nearly four years.
Then-mayor Bob Whalen used a pair of giant scissors to cut a ribbon at the hotel’s front doors alongside Laguna Beach Co. CEO Mohammad Honarkar. Business leaders, senior city staff, and fans of the historic landmark cheered after hearing remarks from Honarkar.
“For more than 90 years, Hotel Laguna has been a treasure at the center of the Laguna community. It is a privilege to update and renew this unique destination for new generations of residents and visitors,” Honarkar said.
The newly-branded restaurant, Larsen, was opened the day after the ribbon-cutting followed by the sushi bar, Fin.
Reopening the first floor of Hotel Laguna has not come without controversy and mishaps. Under Honarkar’s management, the hotel has endured four stop-work orders for unpermitted construction. The City Council’s June 29 closed session meeting regarding Hotel Laguna invited a probe by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, which found substantial evidence of a Brown Act violation.
Earlier this month, the Planning Commission heard a presentation on the remaining interior work that needs to be done to the basement level, a banquet and conference space called the Marine Room. On Dec. 16, Hotel Laguna was issued a city building permit to finish construction on the ground and basement levels.
Early next year, Honarkar will seek design review approval to power wash and repaint the hotel’s exterior in a proposed color resembling the existing color. He’s also seeking a conditional use permit to establish an art gallery in the space formerly occupied by a café.
Planned work on the hotel’s guest rooms includes updating lighting, wall coverings, furnishings, fixtures, flooring and bathrooms, and the addition of air conditioning, according to a staff report. These cosmetic updates can be approved by city staffers, according to a report.
Changes to the building’s facade, parking lot, and a disability-access lift in the Rose Garden are on appeal to the California Coastal Commission.
Orange County Oil Spill Closed Beaches, Reignited Calls For Ban on Offshore Operations
A pipeline off of Huntington Beach leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean in early October, requiring a multi-agency response to protect Orange County’s cherished shorelines and marine wildlife.
The U.S. Coast Guard initially overestimated the spill at up to 126,000 gallons but more recently pegged it at nearly 25,000 gallons. Maritime investigators said they’re exploring the possibility a ship’s anchor dragged the pipeline across the ocean floor.
About 1,800 people have been involved in the spill response, which included coast guardsmen, oil-capturing ship crews, wildlife rescuers, water quality specialists, and environmental clean-up workers.
A federal grand jury on Dec. 15 charged three companies with criminal negligence for their roles in the oil spill. Workers on Platform Ely were alerted of a spill as early as Oct. 1 but believed it was a false alarm because they couldn’t spot an oil sheen.
The Laguna Beach City Council joined other coastal city councils in adopting resolutions calling for an end to all oil operations off the California coastline.
Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) was appointed by the state assembly speaker to chair a select committee probing the oil spill.
In October, Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach) introduced a bill that would ban cargo idling or anchoring 24 nautical miles off the Orange County coast. A working group of maritime industry leaders subsequently set a new rule for eastbound ships to remain 150 miles west of Southern California.
Festivals Reopen Amid Pandemic Lull
The Laguna Beach art festivals reopened in July to visitors following a year-long hiatus forced by the pandemic.
The Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach rolled about 120 artists into this year’s season who were previously juried into the cancelled 2020 show. Festival organizers were allowed to open the gates to crowds following the reopening of the state’s economy on June 15 following mass vaccinations. Besides a handful of people wearing masks and face shields, there were few visible signs of the pandemic among the hugs and pouring of wine and beer.
The Sawdust Art Festival and Laguna Art-A-Fair also reopened their regular summer seasons. At Sawdust, this year’s season ran from July 2 to Sept. 5, which is about a week shorter than usual.
Chief Thompson Suddenly Resigns
Former Laguna Beach police chief Robert Thompson departed less than five months into his tenure as the city’s top cop.
Thompson was on-boarded in January after serving as the police chief in Dixon, Calif. His last day with the city was May 28. City officials have declined to comment on the circumstances around Thompson’s exit, saying it’s a confidential personnel matter.
Police chief Jeff Calvert was immediately named the interim police chief before being permanently appointed in August.
Thompson was subsequently reinstated as the top cop in Dixon, Calif.
Quick Aerial Response Proves Key in Toll Road Fire
Firefighters prevented an 11-acre brush fire that started in June off State Route 73 west of Laguna Canyon Road from burning into Laguna Beach. The blaze was a warning shot of the very high wildfire hazard severity throughout much of the City, city officials said.
Authorities received a 911 call of three separate fires, each about a quarter-acre in size, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Sean Doran said. The fire burned in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park but firefighters were able to stop it with help of a Quick Reaction Force of firefighting helicopters leased with an $18 million grant from Southern California Edison.
An investigation of the June 16 blaze has concluded and the cause remains undetermined, an Orange County Fire Authority spokesperson said last month.
Honarkar Properties Escape Court-Ordered Receiverships
Last January, a prominent Laguna Beach real estate investor was on the brink of foreclosure on a $195.5-million loan backed by a portfolio of 19 properties, including the Hive complex, Royal Hawaiian restaurant, and Holiday Inn on South Coast Highway.
4G Ventures CEO Mohammad Honarkar was supposed to pay the approximately $133 million remaining on the loan, held by Delaware-based LCC Warehouse, by Dec. 9, 2020, but he did not do so, according to a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court against Honarkar’s companies.
The lawsuit, along with a report filed in a separate case by an attorney who acted as a court-appointed receiver in Honarkar’s now-concluded divorce proceedings, detail an empire of assets that mired by debt and lagging behind on many months of bills.
Following the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on indoor activities earlier this year, Honarkar’s hospitality properties reported substantial losses, according to court records. However, the return of beach visitors this summer prompted a rosier economic outlook.
Honarkar’s companies, including the entity managing Hotel Laguna, have been encumbered by three separate court-ordered receiverships this year.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Sept. 14 ended the latest receivership related to a complaint seeking payment on a $175 million loan. Attorneys for Coastline Loans LLC said in court filings that they resolved their differences with Honarkar’s companies and asked for the receiver to be discharged.
Honarkar downplayed the seriousness of the court’s action, saying it was a necessary step because of his divorce.
Heading in the new year, he still faces some legal headwinds heading. The Festival of Arts has filed a lawsuit to evict Terra restaurant for various alleged lease violations. Honarkar’s company has sued the Festival to protect its $6 million investment in the property since 2019.
Meanwhile, a former receiver is confronting Honarkar’s attorneys for his failure to pay nearly $460,000 for work performed on behalf of the court this year, court documents show. A hearing on this issue is scheduled for Jan. 18.