City Sues Over Impact to Wildlife Corridor

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By Allison Jarrell, Special to the Independent

The city of Laguna Beach is preparing for a legal battle against the County of Orange over the Board of Supervisors’ recent approval of a 32-acre housing development in Irvine known as the West Alton Parcel Development Plan.

A map of the entire wildlife corridor that connects Cleveland National Forest with the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and open space areas surrounding Laguna Beach. Image courtesy of FivePoint Holdings.
A map of the entire wildlife corridor that connects Cleveland National Forest with the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and open space areas surrounding Laguna Beach. Image courtesy of FivePoint Holdings.

City officials say the development will have significant negative impacts on a wildlife corridorbetween the Cleveland National Forest and the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and open space areas surrounding Laguna Beach.

The West Alton project of 803 multifamily homes on 32 acres of county-owned land will be bisected by a 12-acre wildlife corridor. With homes constructed on either side of the corridor, city officials and environmentalists worry that a “pinch point” will be created and wildlife will be discouraged from utilizing that path.

“A pinch point any place on a corridor means the corridor fails,” biologist Elisabeth Brown, president of the wildlife conservation group Laguna Greenbelt, warned supervisors when they approved the project June 5.

“We’re already seeing animals that are inbred and they have mange,” Brown said. “They’re weak; they’re not thriving. We don’t want to see this through all of our open spaces. The only way is to connect them.”

Laguna’s elected officials voted 4-0 in closed session on June 12 to file suit, contesting the supervisors’ decision certifying the project’s environmental analysis and approving the development plan. Council member Bob Whalen recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest.

The parcel in question sits just east of Orange County’s Great Park, in between the northeast intersection of Alton Parkway and Irvine Boulevard. The property, which was formerly the Marine Air Corp Air Station El Toro, is bordered to the north by 900-acres of land owned by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

“Issues brought forward by city staff, such as the project’s likely significant adverse impacts on Laguna Canyon Road/State Route 133, have not been reasonably addressed and satisfactorily resolved,” said a June 4 letter addressed to the supervisors by Jason Holder, a lawyer representing Laguna Beach.

Holder also mentioned several unaddressed concerns in what he described as a “flawed” environmental analysis, including impacts on wildlife movement, transportation, recreation and public services as well as “inconsistency with Measure W.”

Measure W amended the county general plan in 2002 to allow El Toro “to be used for non-aviation uses, including a multi-purpose central park, open space, nature preserve, universities and schools, cultural facilities and other interim and long-term uses described herein.”

The city argues that the county is now attempting a de facto amendment of the measure, which would require voter approval.

City Manager John Pietig cautioned supervisors in a 2017 letter about the draft EIR, saying the intensive development on both sides of the wildlife corridor may impact open space areas surrounding Laguna Beach.

“These open space areas are precious resources the Laguna Beach residents have generously funded through special taxes,” Pietig said.

In an email Wednesday, June 20, Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett’s office disagreed with the city’s claim that their concerns have gone unanswered. Bartlett spokesman Victor Cao said county officials have worked diligently to find an amicable solution to potential and perceived impacts.

“Our issues will now be resolved through the impartiality of the judicial process,” Cao said.

The city attorney expects to file suit by July, Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson said.

Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he couldn’t support the development plan during the board’s June 5 hearing, which resulted in a 3-1 vote, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson absent. Spitzer said the surrounding cities and organizations that have voiced concerns are asking for more communication but seem to be headed toward more litigation.

“We know how this game is played; you end up in lawsuits and that’s where the real negotiations go forward,” Spitzer said. “I have great concerns…I have a philosophical concern about government being in the private developer business.”

Laguna Greenbelt has made significant progress with the city of Irvine in creating a continuous wildlife corridor. In March, the group broke ground on a 2.5-mile central swath of the corridor—a $13 million project to be funded by Great Park Neighborhoods developer FivePoint Holdings.

That connector, which has been in the works since the mid-1990s, is slated to be completed within the next two years, but Brown worries that intensive development on both sides of the corridor just south of the new connector will discourage wildlife from travelling to the 22,000 acres of protected greenbelt around Laguna.

Laguna Greenbelt, along with a coalition of other concerned organizations, sued the county last November over an even more intensive adjacent mixed-use projectof 100 acres in El Toro. That lawsuit, along with three others, remain unresolved.

Brown unsuccessfully appealed to supervisors to delay their vote, meet with wildlife experts to discuss the West Alton project’s impacts, and wait for the resolution of the El Toro suits.

When asked if Laguna Greenbelt will sue the county again over West Alton, Brown said they’re going to do “something,” but they’re waiting for now. In the meantime, she’s thankful for the city’s continued support.

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