The California Coastal Commission voted Wednesday, July 9, to subject the makeover of the 84-acre Ranch in Aliso Canyon to its review at a future date, temporarily suspending permit approvals granted in May by the Laguna Beach Planning Commission.
The commission, meeting in Ventura, found merit in an appeal by Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge, who in June challenged the granting of permits for changes to the former Aliso Creek Inn and golf course.
The Coastal Commissioners effectively agreed with their staff’s analysis that a “substantial issue” exists as to whether the permit approvals were consistent with the city’s adopted planning guidelines and portions of the state Coastal Act pertaining to public access.
Laguna Beach’s planners had no chance to protest the findings on the floor since a public hearing on such an item requires three commissioners to request it and none did. Laguna’s staff did submit an eight-page rebuttal refuting the commission staff’s analysis the day prior to the hearing.
Six commissioners disclosed at the hearing that either they or their staff had communicated with Laguna Beach resident Penny Elia, an environmental advocate, who strongly supported the appeal.
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell noted that she had spoken to Ranch co-owner Mark Christy, who shared his own perspective opposing the appeal. Christy also told Mitchell that his attempts to communicate with coastal staff members proved fruitless.
“I feel like if the appellant can get a call and a conversation in, we should be able to return the call of the person whose property this is,” admonished Mitchell.
Reached by e-mail after the meeting, Christy said he holds no rancor and simply wants to “move forward and work in transparent cooperation” with the coastal staff and his team to bring the project to fruition.
“I don’s need to fight because, as everyone who has seen it agrees, the project stands tall on its own merits,” he said. “When the staff and/or the commissioners are able to come down for a site visit, they’ll see the truth and reality for themselves.”
In its analysis, coastal staff outlined their support for most of Fudge’s contentions. These included his assertions that the permit approval process failed to adequately address the project’s impact on affordable public accommodations, parking, historical and biological resources, water quality and other issues.
The commission disagreed with Fudge’s contention that the city’s environmental review of the project was inadequate.
Gregory Pfost, Laguna’s new director of community development, contends in his letter that the city staff thoroughly investigated the issues before granting permits and laments the Coastal Commission staff’s failure to consult with city staff before issuing their report.
The missive refutes each of the commission’s findings, arguing that none involves a substantial issue. Pfost attributes the commission staff’s conclusions to a failure to access the proper city documents, misinterpretation of existing laws, or lack of research.
Pfost posits that the Coastal Commission staff’s analysis fails to differentiate between two phases of construction at The Ranch. A building permit issued last year to remodel the existing hotel included changes to the facade and interior that did not increase the number of hotel units. By their nature, the improvements did not require a coastal development permit because they did not trigger the city’s definition of a major remodel, the letter states.
Even so, the city’s definition of a major remodel, though approved by the City Council, has not yet been included in the city’s local coastal program, development guidelines that must be sanctioned by the Coastal Commission to allow property owners to bypass its review for locally issued coastal development permits. For two years, city and coastal staff have debated more restrictive remodel rules pushed by the commission and viewed locally as too stringent.
Pfost notes that the coastal staff analysis seems to conflate the previously approved hotel remodel with the separate project that received the now contested permit approvals in May. The latter allowed a restaurant makeover, spa addition and subdivision of existing larger rooms, among other improvements.
Pfost says the permit approvals are “fully consistent” with planning guidelines and that the city “finds it disheartening that the appellant’s unfounded allegations to the contrary would be given credence without a careful review of the entire record and discussions with city staff.”