Contested Tract Dedicated for Public Use

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The staff of the California Coastal Commission will recommend two orders at a Dec. 16 hearing, which, if approved, would result in the addition of 75 acres of open space for public use and potentially end years of enmity between would-be developers and opposing neighbors and environmentalists.

Bordered by the Laguna Terrace Mobile Home Park on the west, the parcel includes six acres bulldozed illegally decades ago at Driftwood Drive’s end and envisioned for a handful of trophy homes by in recent years by two developers. Driftwood Properties LLC, whose principles developed Laguna Beach’s Montage resort, acquired the acreage in 2004 from the Esslinger Family Trust. The three parcels are currently valued at $1.9 million, according to tax assessment records.

“It’s a thrilling result for the community to have this very large property and very sensitive area preserved from a large subdivision,” said Derek Ostensen, president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which has helped add 250 acres to the town’s greenbelt using voter-approved park bond funds since 2000.

He described the gift as a key parcel on the foundation’s target acquisition list for its sensitive habitat and views.

The owners, too, are pleased to offer the land for the public’s enjoyment in perpetuity, John Mansour, a vice president of developer Athens Group, said in a statement.

For hardy hikers, the gift will open public access to the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, said City Manager Ken Frank. “It’s a major part of the trail system that had been on private property,” he said.

Nevertheless, the gift comes with strings: maintenance costs and liability questions that will require evaluation before it is accepted, said Frank, who was aware of the commission negotiations though not directly involved. He pointed out that donating the land now, “removes it as a bargaining chip for the future,” a reference to whether Athens and its partners will revive development plans postponed in August 2009, which mapped out estate-sized homes off Driftwood Drive and redevelopment of the nearby nine-hole Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course.

The gift comprises a third of Driftwood’s 235-acre holdings, according to Athens spokeswoman Joan Gladstone, who said the owners intend to hold onto the remaining property. The tax consequences of the gift are unclear at present, she said.

The dedication was negotiated as a condition of two administrative orders to cure violations of the coastal act, some of which occurred more than a decade ago under previous ownership. The violations involved brush removal of rare plants that shelter endangered species, laying 5,500 sandbags and installing an above-ground plastic drainage pipe, according to the staff report.

The agreement was devised to protect a valuable resource, including habitat for big-leaved crownbeard, “one of the last places in the world where it’s found,” said the commission’s Aaron McLendon.

Brush clearance also damaged the habitat by allowing the introduction of invasive species throughout the area and led to erosion, the report says.

The order calls for the property owner to remove the non-native species, sand bags, and fencing, dedicate 75 acres as open space and grant 50-year purchase rights on another more northerly 80 acres to the California State Coastal Conservancy, the agency overseeing open-space additions to the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and greenbelt.

A year ago, the city received another unexpected donation, a 98-acre rectangle honeycombed with environmentally sensitive habitat that sprawls between Moulton Meadows Park and the Aliso Creek golf course. Known by some as the “donut hole,” the entirely landlocked parcel had been owned since 1982 by Iranian-born brothers Bahador and Daryoush Mahboubi Fardi of Beverly Hills. The new land gift borders last year’s donation, which remains encircled by properties still owned and controlled by Athens Group and its partners.

While Ostensen predicted that the consent order will bring cheer to residents of Marilyn and Driftwood Drives, they aren’t celebrating yet. “Once the hearing is decided, then the community can think more about managing open space,” said 18-year Driftwood resident Ed Almanza.

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