By Andrea Adelson | LB Indy
A standing-room only crowd and elected Laguna Beach officials turned out for a Coastal Commission hearing Wednesday in Newport Beach to support remodeling of The Ranch golf course and hotel in Aliso Canyon, which is now under commission review.
Three elected City Council members, Laguna’s city manager, and a former chairman of its planning commission joined Ranch co-owner Mark Christy to lobby for the project during the commission’s public comment period.
“I’m begging you to look at the property,” said Christy, urging the commissioners, while they are in the area for their two-day October meeting, to visit. “We have nothing to hide.”
Though the appeal itself was not on the formal agenda, Christy took advantage of the commission’s proximity to organize the rally, sending out an email appeal two weeks ago. He chartered three large private buses for the trek between the Ranch and the neighboring town and handed out Ranch t-shirts to supporters. He aimed to provide a visual demonstration of the public’s enthusiasm for what he described as a “sensitive restoration project.”
“No one is being paid,” Christy told the commissioners, referring to scores of locals that lined the Newport Beach City Council chambers. “This is the way Laguna rolls when they know something is wrong.”
The commissioners cannot legally respond to issues raised during the public comment period and remained silent.
The commission rarely sees a rally in favor of a development, pointed out Rob Zur Schmiede, a former chairman of the Laguna Beach Planning Commission, who is running for City Council.
Zur Schmiede testified in defense of the decision by the planning commission, which had given the go-ahead to the Ranch renovations absent a development permit from the Coastal Commission.
The rally was unusual in another way as well. Rarely do Laguna Beach city officials testify en masse on behalf of any project, and their decision to do so had been debated the day before during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Ultimately, the council voted to authorize attendance by Mayor Pro Tem Robert Whalen and council members Toni Iseman and Kelly Boyd, all of whom testified.
In July, the commission challenged the Ranch permits that had been approved in May, which allowed reconfiguring the 64-room hotel into 97 rooms, revamping the restaurant and adding a new spa and valet parking plan.
While golfers continued to swing on the nine-hole course, hotel guests were turned away beginning late last year as carports were dismantled and the guest apartments stripped to the studs.
The commission’s action came in response to an appeal filed in June by Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge, who contended the permits were unlawful. Christy was warned he risked enforcement action if renovation didn’t cease in the contested area until the commission conducts a review.
Christy said he has complied, halting work and providing the voluminous documentation since requested by commission staff. The demands included a 20-year history of hotel room rates, a site map of a historic tree grove and former scout camp, and surveys of bird nesting.
In the meantime, when Coastal Commission staff visited the site on Sept. 11, they spotted what they considered to be unpermitted development elsewhere on the property, separate from the issues raised by Fudge’s appeal. On Sept. 24, enforcement analyst Andrew Willis issued Christy a notice of violation, which could potentially cloud the property’s title unless resolved.
At issue is a 7,000 square foot concrete dance floor, non-native landscaping and intensification of use at the former girl scout camp at the far end of the property. The area formerly used as a storage yard by the previous owner was rechristened Scout Camp, which in recent months has served as an open-air event center.
The commission notice requested that events in the eucalyptus grove cease. Christy said he has complied, which has forced him to relocate events elsewhere on the property.
Willis claimed that city staff was unaware of the extent of the development at Scout Camp. The city’s newly hired community development director, Greg Pfost, had not seen the area, Christy said.
“I honestly did not believe the work we did needed a permit,” Christy said. “Coastal staff feels otherwise. So we’re working with them to find a resolution.”
Christy’s representative, Anne Blemker, said city planners found no permit was required since it was a grandfathered use and no structures were built.
Christy has until Oct. 24 to submit a reconfigured plan for the event center.
Willis said the commission’s evaluation of the project “is not a referendum on the city’s review; it’s to ensure it is consistent with the Coastal Act.”