The $85,000 that Laguna Beach City Council members voted to spend on the proposed Village Entrance Project two weeks ago wasn't the first public money approved for the development, which was first proposed in the mid-1990s.

The city has spent $1 million on studies and designs related to the Village Entrance over the past 18 years, according to Gavin Curran, city finance director.

And even though a possible citywide vote on the project looms as a resident gathers signatures to put the issue on the ballot, City Hall is not waiting, at least at this point, for the referendum process to play out.

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Still, money drives most conversations about the controversial plan.

The Village Entrance Project includes a proposed pedestrian park and four-level parking structure in an area currently occupied by the Forest Avenue and Lumberyard parking lots and the city maintenance yard.

On Oct. 1, the council voted 4 to 1 — with Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who objects to the proposed project, dissenting — to spend $85,000 to test the soil in the area for contaminants. Members also agreed to use $15,000 from the sewer fund to pay an engineering company to study odors emanating from the site, which includes a sewer lift station.

"We were very careful in approving the latest spending," Whalen said in a recent phone interview. "We need to check out the soils if we scrape away the surface parking lot for a park."

At its June 11 meeting, the council voted 3 to 2 on an initial funding plan for the Village Entrance.

The proposed project is expected to cost $42.3 million, with $22.6 million going toward the parking structure, according to a city presentation.

Project costs would be covered by $13 million in city reserves and $29 in bond financing.

The city estimates that new parking meter revenue ($2 million), coupled with revenue from the parking structure spaces ($300,000), would exceed the annual debt service payment ($2.1 million) for the 25-year life of the bond, according to a presentation during the June 11 council meeting.

Iseman isn't supportive of the parking structure and would like the city to use the $13 million set aside in reserves for the project to find 200 additional parking spaces throughout Laguna.

"I think there's a good chance there won't be a parking structure there," Iseman said, summarizing the sentiment of many residents who have written letters to local newspapers and spoken in opposition at City Council meetings. "We were told [by parking consultants] to study ways of utilizing parking that we have. They've encouraged us to use various rates on meters: The more desirable parking, the more expensive it is."

Several residents spoke against the proposed structure at the Oct. 1 council meeting, when the architect, Studio One Eleven, presented initial design plans.

Iseman has also questioned whether the park needs to be as grand as proposed — 75,000 square feet.

"I don't think there needs to be a full-blown park," Iseman has said. "We can beautify the vegetation and add a walking path to connect with the [Festival of the Arts]. That area has been neglected."

Councilmen Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow said the city is not locked into a project; there is still time for public input, which will come via workshops and forums in the coming months.

"The public is clearly paying attention," Dicterow said. "In a sense we're going back to square one. We all know we want to do something. What that will look like, I don't know yet."

Laguna Beach resident Paul Merritt wants the public to decide whether to proceed with the Village Entrance Project.

Merritt officially began collecting signatures Sept. 25 in an attempt to place his version of the project, which does not include a parking structure or park, on a future ballot.

As of Monday, Merritt had 100 signatures, he wrote in an email.

Merritt has temporarily halted signature gathering as he recovers from knee replacement surgery but said he will resume the drive soon.

"After next week we intend to put new vigor into the collection process," Merritt wrote. "I even think when local business owners and managers see our position on the 1,178 meters, they too will join in the effort to have a community vote."

Merritt proposes that none of the revenue from the 1,178 parking meters be used for the Village Entrance, according to a copy of his initiative.

Over the summer, with council approval, the city converted those coin-operated meters to ones that have credit/debit card readers. With the conversion, the first of four 25-cent rate hikes went into effect, a city staff report said.