The California Coastal Commission failed to enforce the Coastal Act and did not require a Laguna hotel renovation to address destruction of affordable rooms and environmental habitat. The Commission did require them to pay $250,000 toward finishing the long-awaited Trail to the Sea, but this is by no means guarantees its completion.
Laguna Beach Hotel Renovation Violates Coastal Act, Environmental Rules
By Jack Eidt
Real estate money has transformed Laguna Beach as a one-time artist enclave that mobilized to save Laguna Canyon in 1989 to a hideaway for the wealthy and entitled. Case in point: “The Ranch” at Laguna Beach, a controversial hotel upgrade that destroys affordable accommodations and sensitive habitat with full permission of the city and now the California Coastal Commission (CCC).
Once a relatively low-cost 64-room modest coastal hotel (formerly Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course or before that Ben Brown’s), the plan will upgrade the facility into a 97-room boutique hotel. Plans approved by the City of Laguna Beach last year with deficient notice and no environmental documentation, also included reconfiguring restaurant and banquet facilities and adding a new spa, fitness center and employee lounge. Unfortunately, the old hotel was demolished under a separate over-the-counter permit with no hearings in 2013. Seems the developer, Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow LLC fronted by Mark Christy, co-owner of both Hobie’s Surf Shop and Tuvalu Home Furnishings, has some friends in city government.
To make matters worse, they also slapped down an unpermitted “Outdoor Events Center” that included a 7,000 square foot concrete dance floor proximate to an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) that was a former Girl Scout Camp intended for use as public low cost camping. The latter move got the developer a “Notice of Violation” from the Coastal Commission last September.
We argued this new CCC hearing in Santa Monica should have led to a denial of the Coastal Development Permit for the project because significant deficiencies and violations of the Coastal Act have not been dealt with. These include the failure to address the loss of lower-cost visitor-serving overnight accommodations within the City of Laguna Beach, the after-the-fact approval of the illegal, unpermitted “Outdoor Events Center,” and the failure to require the applicant to complete a critical part of the final portion of the long-awaited Trail to the Sea.
In addition, 13 of these structures along Aliso Creek will be underwater in the next flood and the City’s approval did not adequately address the hazards of siting new development within the 100-year special flood hazard area. Flooding occurred at the site in 1969, 1992, 1998 and 2010. A recent study stated that 47 rooms were damaged in the 1992 flood, several feet of sediment were deposited on the property in the 1995 flood, and several million dollars in damages to the property occurred in the 1997-1998 El Nino-driven storm events. According to the zoning code, a major remodel involves the “demolition, removal, replacement and/or reconstruction of 50% or more of the existing structure,” which contrary to assertions of the developer, the city and even Coastal Commission staff, has clearly surpassed in a development that guts all systems of the existing buildings and adds 33 new rooms.
Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, cited as an example [of undue influence of the lobbyist Susan McCabe of McCabe & Co.] the Ranch at Laguna Beach, a hotel renovation. Commission staff had sought a developer’s fee of $1 million or more to mitigate the loss of affordable rooms. But the panel dropped the fee with no further public discussion after receiving “watered-down conditions” submitted in writing by an attorney working with McCabe, Jordan said.
“The commission voted to eliminate the fee that should have gone toward providing low-cost accommodations for the public and only required a much smaller donation for a trail,” she said. “I was appalled by the failure to vigorously protect the public interest. The developer essentially got away scot-free.” — Los Angeles Times
Loss of 64 Lower Cost Accommodations for Laguna and OC
The loss of 64 affordable overnight visitor-serving accommodations that existed for decades proximate to the beach must be accounted for, where rooms routinely start in the several hundred dollar range. This facility was lower cost based on published room rates and affordable design that allowed multiple guests per room and meals to be cooked on-site.
Protection of affordable visitor-serving overnight accommodations as a component of public access is required under the Coastal Act. The project increases the total number of new higher cost rooms on-site to 97 from the previous 64 lower cost rooms and offers numerous additional amenities as well. But, in doing so, nothing in the City’s record addresses the loss of the prior lower cost visitor-serving accommodations nor did the City require an in-lieu fee or any other mitigation to account for that loss. The Commission should have required the developer to replace 64 low-cost rooms partially on-site, and pay a sufficient in-lieu fee to establish the rest in close proximity along the coast. Yet they did not.
Privatizing and Paving a Girl Scout Camp in the Wild Woods
The Dolph Sisters generously donated this land to the Girl Scouts in 1935 deed restricted for a public camp for youth in Laguna Beach. In 2007, the parcel sold to Driftwood Properties/Athens Group with restrictions removed using a doctrine that could only be applied through a court action that was not demonstrated by the applicant. The Local Sierra Club Task Force has requested that under the Coastal Commission enforcement action that camping programs for underserved and at-risk youth throughout Orange County be implemented for the property. The offer of 12 small camping trips per year for up to 40 persons at a time administered by a non-profit is woefully deficient and not public.
Additionally, the developer should have been made to remove this unpermitted dance floor and restore the site to its former environmental habitat and public use.
Mountains to the Sea Trail Must Connect to Aliso Beach
Over 40 years ago, the 16-mile “Mountains to the Sea” Trail linkage was adopted by the County of Orange Master Plan of Trails, codified under the Local Coastal Program (LCP) and the public access policies of the Coastal Act, to connect the headwaters of Aliso Creek in the Cleveland National Forest, to the Pacific Ocean at Aliso Beach. The meandering trail now transports bikers, hikers and nature enthusiasts along Aliso Creek through the unincorporated areas of Orange County as well as five cities, with only the stretch through Laguna remaining uncompleted.
This property owner acquired the hotel and golf course with full knowledge of this connection and has even admitted it is feasible and can be made safe along the northern boundary of the golf course. The Laguna Beach Open Space Element and the certified LCP demonstrate this location as well, along the floor of Aliso Canyon generally following the “Girl Scout” easement through the Golf Course. Talk of a “floating easement” that would lead off-site into sensitive habitat would not be acceptable, but that was what the CCC agreed to.
In the end, the Commission agreed to require the developer to pay $250,000 toward completing the trail, assembling property by adjacent owners and the hiring of an overseeing agency. While this offer to dedicate is important to provide for a potential trail in the future, it is not the same as actually building the trail through the subject property, paid directly by the developer. Talk of a short-term intermittent shuttle was also shelved. We argued the shuttle would not fulfill Coastal Act access requirements regarding inland recreation, and creates issues related to funding, parking, access, fees, and other burdens and unnecessary obligations for both recreational users and beach-goers. Unfortunately, the decision leaves no short- or mid- term trail solution, and a long-term trail is by no means guaranteed.
The lesson: city government from the standpoint of the public good in Laguna Beach is broken. Money rules the roost, and the cozy interrelationship between campaign money and decision making has produced serious lapses of social and environmental protection indicative in this “Ranch” project. Can we depend upon the Coastal Commission to counterbalance the clearly compromised wheels of government in this artist colony gone to the billionaires? No, we cannot. The CCC weak staff report turned out to be their strongest statement, with Commissioners agreeing to let the developer slide, an inauspicious day for the California coast.
Updated May 4, 2016.
From an Unidentified Commenter:
Allow me to contribute an opinion regarding the pro-Ranch field trip to Santa Monica, signs, T-shirts, letters, et al:
Make the distinction, folks, that you are being asked to support a money-making enterprise, not a charitable effort. Mark Christy has convinced many that his business is a worthy “cause” for which the community has touchingly expressed its love. Let’s set aside the purplish prose and see this for what it is.
We have many truly worthy causes in Laguna Beach, but the Ranch is not a charity. A local entrepreneur with a gift for salesmanship has hit a snag in his development process that was probably rushed through at the city level without sufficient attention to the larger procedures and rules that dictate what’s allowed in an environmentally sensitive area of the California coastline. This businessman has asked for help from locals who want to play, eat, and meet there – fair enough. But don’t mistake a business enterprise for a “cause.”
The big, bad California Coastal Commission exists for a reason, and picky though they may be, they aren’t necessarily wrong with the demands they are making of the Ranch. They are there to hound developers like Christy on the little things like lights that are too bright, vehicle over-capacity, insufficient public access to trails, beach-adjacent accommodations affordable only for the well-heeled. It strikes me that such concerns from the CCC are reasonable hoops for a developer to jump through. They often take years, not months. The hue and cry over due diligence creating a temporary roadblock is impressively forceful from the Ranch camp.
I want to see the Ranch finished out and upgraded, but it must be done carefully and with respect for nature. I’m surprised there isn’t more concern about the additional visitors and traffic this development is going to draw to Laguna.
Christy is a convincing figure, positioning himself as a humble steward of a community treasure that everyone wants to be able to use. It is even “the answer to Laguna’s prayers,” if you’re a praying person inclined to believe what he posts on his website. He’s done a great job of rallying the locals to help him in his bid for success. I wish him well, and boy, do I envy him his salesmanship. Would that other important, true community issues could draw this kind of response!
But consider this: if we allow a legitimate debate to play out between a developer and the state agency charged with making the coastline accessible to all and developed responsibly, it could ultimately contribute to our community winding up with a more environmentally appropriate resort.
I don’t know who wrote the attached comments, you, Balanced Bob, who posted the same editorial in the Laguna Beach newspaper. Your comments closely align with the relatively few opponents of the restoration.
I’ll “cut and paste” the same reply I sent Balanced Bob, whoever that is.
Based on your January 8th posting date, I’ll assume that you didn’t attend the Coastal Commission meeting, but instead were cleverly crafting your editorial. If you had attended, you would have heard that the Coastal Commission overwhelmingly (9-1) approved the restoration project for “The Ranch at Laguna Beach”. You would have heard the dismantling of unsubstantiated claims and assumptions by Coastal Commission staff, misinformed trail advocates and opponents of the Ranch restoration. You would have heard personal apologies from the commissioners themselves for putting Christy through the ringer after appellant Mark Fudge and Penny Elia opened up Pandora’s box.
As for your trite comments regarding Mark Christy’s intentions and salesmanship, I have to assume that you don’t know Mark personally. Mark is not a developer, but more the anti-developer and job creator. He has been an unwavering supporter and part of every important effort to protect the environment around Laguna. In the 1990’s, Mark was one of the founding members of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, local activists who derailed the Irvine Company’s plans to build thousands of homes and sprawling commercial centers in Laguna Canyon. That effort ultimately set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in the creation of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park.
The rehabilitation of the Ranch golf course property and structures is being done with careful sensitivity to its environmental, historic and cultural importance to Laguna Beach and surrounding communities. This includes preservation of the original Thurston home site and the rehabilitation of the Camp Elizabeth Dolph, abandoned as a “Scout Camp” for decades and used by the prior owners as a maintenance yard and dumpsite. This area has been beautifully transformed into an environmentally green and sustainable, multi-use open space available for a variety of private and community gatherings, while preserving the natural beauty of the site. Aside from removing the vegetation within 25 feet of Aliso Creek and limiting event capacity and decibel levels, the Coastal Commission approved the area designed as an event venue. The golf course and surrounding vegetation look better that ever.
I don’t understand what drives people to take a stand on issues when they don’t have all the facts. It’s clear that some simply have their own agenda. There’s always those that grab “sound bites” of information and jump on the bandwagon not knowing what they are supporting. The bureaucratic process was arduous, costly in countless ways, and ultimately proven unwarranted. Like the vast majority of Lagunans and local communities, I couldn’t be happier about the decision to move forward with the restoration of our town’s crown jewel. Could you be more enlightened “Fair and Balanced “ Bob?
Happy New Year!
It is sad to see Laguna Beach’s environmental citizens being fooled, swayed or bought off by this false concept.
If you live in Laguna Beach and are not angry and upset then you have not read the fine print of this developers proposal.
Read, learn and voice your opposition.
Have you been to the Ranch? Do you know the history of the property? Why do you suppose the overwhelming majority of Laguna Beach and the surrounding communities support the restoration? It’s not about being fooled or swayed. It’s because we recognized that a local landmark was decaying, and thankfully Mark Christy stepped in with a vision to sensitively restore the property. What developers are you talking about?
What is sad…specifically? If you want to voice your opposition, you should get involved and state your case before the decisions are made.
I think the piece clearly reflects my opinion of the Commission’s 9-1 decision, which I was fully present for. PR is well and good, but we have lost affordable accommodations, the paving over of Scout Camp with a small nod to camping and no actual plan or requirement to complete the trail to the sea. Those are facts. Just because the Commission decided to ignore the facts does not make them go away.
Stop hanging on to an anachronistic notion that hoteliers must provide affordable accommodations. That’s naive.
The market has created affordable housing – it’s called AirBnB. The community wanted this project because Mark Christy knows how to throw a party! We like the nexus of community he has created there. The live music and fundraisers. With great sensitivity to the environment. The former Girl Scout Camp? You mean dump site? This place is now an awesome event space for us to ENJOY THE OPEN SPACE. I’m so glad he cut those horrific, invasive, non-native Eucalyptus trees to open up the views. It’s like a nature cathedral, and we get to enjoy it. And we’re gonna get a hike/bike trail where it belongs: in the wilderness. Oh happy day. Don’t be a hater. Stop by for a brew at sunset and drink it all in. Coastal Commission did right.
Have you been to the Ranch?
Brian, it is best to not make assumptions about commenters here. Ranger Tom worked for many many years in Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park. His knowledge of the processes at work in the coastal ecosystem of Southern California, as well as the management of open spaces at the County level, render him quite able to comment freely and with total accuracy. Other patronizing directives at me will be left to the reader to divine the answer.
We have a home on a lagoon in north San Diego County. We have been working on planning a remodel and approximately 1600 sq ft addition. We have been working with local Coastal staff, and the city, to make sure we are in the ballpark with our plans. Coastal has basically taken about 33% of our .6 acre lot. Public access and open space. We just signed a form stating, under penalty of perjury, we have not given more than $250 to any commissioner in the last year. The process is burdensome, expensive and difficult. The commission is said to be extremely liberal, anti wealth, anti development…anti human even. To even think a developer could somehow buy his way, or sell his way through this process is ludicrous! Even the Edge, from U-2 was turned down on his proposal to build 4 homes in the Santa Monica hills. I think there are a lot of people who don’t own property near the coast, who are resentful. I agree with reasonable access, and not getting crazy with development, but if you have a lot in a coastal zone that is zoned for something, it shouldn’t take 5-10 years plus hundreds of thousands of dollars to build it.
Thanks for your comment. The “taking” of your property should have been quite clear in your property deeds, as they in that case upheld the intent of the Coastal Act. Sorry that it is burdensome, and your comment “anti-human” is ridiculous, with all due respect. Living on the crowded California coast has consequences, and you can always move elsewhere where you don’t have to make concessions to allow your millions of neighbors to enjoy the commons of the beach and coastal zone.
You actually make my point: The City of Laguna Beach comes down with the full weight of the law on average property owners without deep pockets, and in this case the paid-consultants-to-play led to the Coastal Commission flaunting the Coastal Act to approve this project. It’s not about donations. It’s about influence that is bought at some point down the chain. In this case, the developer hired an expensive consultant who had one of the leading members of the Commission on speed dial. Had you bought your influence, you would not have these problems. Had you followed this developer’s example you would have just poured the concrete with full confidence that your influential partners would deal with the ignored regulations.
The Edge project is not a good comparison because major environmental organizations with real political and community influence came out against that project, so just merely buying influence did not have the same effect.
One more thing, Jack. Your insinuation that “Laguna Beach is broken” and “Money rules the roost, and the cozy interrelationship between campaign money and decision making has produced serious lapses of social and environmental protection indicative in this “Ranch” project” clearly indicates you have no knowledge of our local politics. Nobody gives enough money to influence candidates. We have a fine group of independent thinkers, three of whom are definitively on the left, and only two who could conceivably be called “pro business.” That is a gross simplification. They are all pro-Laguna, and are heavily invested in keeping it clean and green. Councilwoman Toni Iseman is a staunch environmentalist and was instrumental in the protests that saved our canyon open space. These councilmen simply looked at all the facts and concluded it was a good, environmentally sound project. I love how out-of-towners make declarations about local city officials that are baseless. I’m almost ashamed to call myself a liberal environmentalist because many of you just hang on principles without knowing the facts.
With all due respect and appreciation for Ranger Tom’s environmental knowledge, to suggest someone was swayed or bought off is not only naive, but seriously inappropriate and unwarranted. Most everyone knowledgable about the project is thrilled that a large outside conglomerate or developer didn’t purchase the property. Instead, a local resident with deep roots and unwavering loyalty to our community went “all in” to make sure that the project is properly restored and will serve the community for years to come. What is sad about that?
I think a more accurate first paragraph to your post would be “Overwhelming Community Support of the kind that mobilized to Save Laguna Canyon in 1989 helped rescue an outdated Hotel from wealthy real estate money (think Montage) to create The Ranch at Laguna Beach lead by long time community supporter Mark Christy” The CCC in a vote of 9-1 approved the project and resolved any notice of violation while imposing over 20 conditions most of which The Ranch had agreed to in advance. Contrary to your assertion, the CCC did not find that the renovation violated the coastal act and/or environmental rules. The vast majority of the Commissioner’s wisely rejected the lower cost accommodation argument and instead directed the focus of any “In Lieu Fee” to benefit the Trail. This clever and innovative solution was supported at the hearing by The Ranch to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars along with conditions to provide for the Trail. Regarding the girl scout camp, state law dictates who can make claims regarding this issue and the applicant is being conditioned on how to handle this issue. I reviewed the campaign disclosures of the Laguna Beach City officials and could find no evidence to support that campaign money influenced this project and I am not aware of any Billionaire compromising City government. Living in Laguna Beach for over 25 years and raising 4 children here, I can attest to the fact that a very large segment of town support The Ranch project and it’s improvements and are very thankful for what it is not.
Once again, Skip, you, like other commenters, confuse the Commission’s decision as gospel, and believe because it was 9 to 1, that it truly represents the intent of the Coastal Act and the local LCP. I can tell you, the decision is in direct violation of the Coastal Act, which could become a serious issue on the legal front for this developer in the future. To compare the outpouring of support here as similar to what happened in Laguna Canyon elicits a chuckle. Who is financing this project? It is a deep-pocketed series of investors who understand that using a local project advocated with a more modest program is a way to get this done. That would be great if the developer would agree to ACTUALLY putting in a trail on his property, not just putting start-up money; dealing with the legal intended use for Scout Camp; and paying a sufficient in-lieu fee for the lost affordable accommodations. And finally, you make assertions in Laguna City government that it represents the will of the people. My point exactly. No one of modest means can afford anything but to spend a few hours in Laguna. Frankly, you and all the other commenters here can’t even see and understand the Big Money change in Laguna when it is right in front of your eyes. The days of an anachronistic artist colony isolated from big bad right-wing, corporatist Orange County are long past. We are all entitled to our opinions, but it again shows the provincial mindset of the people pushing this project when they think they can ignore the Coastal Act and environmental advocates fighting to protect its integrity, claiming that we just don’t know the developer or haven’t visited the site.
Hey Jack where exactly would that trail through the golf course go? Have you studied it? All you people who cry for a trail have never taken the time to consider how to safely engineer it. Unless you are Montage and rip out the entire gold course to put in luxury homes. Is that what you want? Scout camp? Really? with no bathrooms? Who is gonna use that? In-Lieu fee for lost affordable housing? That ship[ sailed. That’s why the previous property sunk. The economics don’t work. Laguna Beach is an enclave for the rich. Free market. Wanna camp on the beach? Go to Bolsa Chica or Doheny. Want affordable accommodations? Go to AirBnB. The perfect democratization of hospitality. There. Problems solved.
“The days of an anachronistic artist colony isolated from big bad right-wing, corporatist Orange County are long past.”
That’s absolutely correct. It’s an anachronism. The world has discovered Laguna and descended upon it. Luckily for us locals there’s a hidden refuge we can escape to: The Ranch. Coastal Act needs updating. Laguna can be its own watchdog. We won.
Well, here’s a regular gal with no wealth to speak of who can appreciate the lack of public access to anything Laguna, except for the scrap of property wedged between Newport Beach and Laguna; I’m talking about Crystal Cove. I don’t know the history of this little gem but I think it was a “gift” of some sort by a developer (probably the Irvine Company) and the diligence of someone like Jack. I read all the comments and it looks like elitist locals have grabbed this new retreat for their own without any respect for the law or public access. Shame on you–even the environmentalists among you.
Jack, I find your conclusions and analysis lacking basic fairness. You can insult the Community of Laguna Beach and Coastal Commission all day long as is your right, however your posting and comments show an intolerance for private property rights and those who dare to dream counter to your already made up mind.
I place the deficiencies in this project not on the shoulders of the developer, but on the City of Laguna Beach. Re-read the entire essay, and you can compile a list where the City failed to exercise their duty to the citizenry and the coastal Orange County environment.
By granting an over-the-counter demolition permit and a not-properly-noticed Planning Commission approval that did not include a full airing of the process required in California environmental and coastal law, they decided their legal duty was less important that granting a quick approval. The developer then went and paved over the Scout Camp site without a permit, knowing full well no one in the city would do a thing, even after holding fundraisers on the property.
Had the developer not relied on assurances from city officials that the laws of the State would be bent to allow his project to pass, instead of doing his full due diligence before breaking ground, we would not be in this situation.
Why would the Planning Director get up at numerous hearings and claim no Trail to the Sea would be required when had he read his own General Plan and Local Coastal Program, it would be stated in bold print? When was the last time you can remember a rally (okay, “hearing”) held by city officials on city property for a project under a Notice of Violation of the Coastal Act, as happened in the just before the CCC hearing?
Property rights are conditioned by a series of laws, local, regional, statewide and federal. But we require a political legislative process to enforce these laws that in this case has broken down. My interest is in protecting the Coastal Act, because this project sets some very concerning precedents.
Change the project to adhere to the Coastal Act, and I will change my mind.
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