By Allison Jarrell, Special to the Independent
Despite two neighbors’ fervent opposition, the Laguna Beach City Council voted unanimously to reaffirm the approval of restoration, monitoring and maintenance plans at the Ranch at Laguna Beach, a resort hotel with spa, restaurant and nine-hole golf course in Aliso Canyon.
The 30-minute appeal hearing Tuesday, June 12, consisted of residents Mark and Sharon Fudge arguing against the Planning Commission’s April approval of the Ranch’s creek restoration plans, which were previously approved by the California Coastal Commission.
City planner Scott Drapkin said the Planning Commission made the same findings as the Coastal Commission and concluded that “the removal of invasive species and the planting of native riparian habitat would improve the existing Aliso Creek.” He called the Fudges’ grounds for appealing “speculative and unfounded.”
Mr. Fudge found fault with the city’s noticing of the hearing and its compliance with an array of environmental and planning regulations as well as a recent court decision. An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled in Fudge’s favor and found that the city illegally allowed the Ranch to transform a girl scout camp on the property into an event venue without environmental review.
Contesting the restoration plan is the latest chapter in Fudge’s ongoing efforts to block Ranch improvements. Fudge said on Tuesday that he’s “not against restoring” the property, but he feels that city staff did a “substandard job” in analyzing and presenting the project.
Local Mark Christy received approval for the expansion and remodel of the Ranch’s existing hotel, restaurant, banquet and golf course facility off Coast Highway in 2014. Fudge’s historic home sits on a bluff above Aliso Canyon and the Ranch, and since that initial 2014 approval he has repeatedly contested renovations at the Ranch.
Before making his case Tuesday, Fudge asked that Council member Toni Iseman consider recusing herself from voting on the appeal, citing remarks she made at a May 1 Council meeting, which he felt showed a bias toward Christy.
Fudge played a recording of the meeting on his phone, with Iseman saying, “We thought we were doing Mark Christy a favor when we let him go through the easy way, and it cost him a fortune. We have people that we know and love that we would like to make things easy, and some of them are in the room right now, and they need to look at the lesson of that and recognize that we need to do things so right, that nobody can come back and challenge them and cost them months or years or millions of dollars…”
Iseman said she would “happily” recuse herself despite the misinterpretation of her comments.
Mayor Kelly Boyd asked for legal advice.
Asst. City Attorney Ajit Thind said he didn’t think recusal was necessary and felt Iseman’s comments “intended to make sure that all projects go through the process fairly and that the process is done adequately to ensure environmental issues are reviewed properly.”
Fudge ended up withdrawing the accusation of bias, saying he accepted the explanation.
Fudge argued that the Planning Commission “simply rubber stamped a coastal permit” in April and failed to apply their own standards.
Kurt Bjorkman, Ranch general manager, rebuffed Fudge’s characterization.
Restorations plans, which involve removal of woody vegetation and invasive species and replanting of native vegetation along the banks of Aliso Creek, have been undertaken in consultation with state authorities to preserve the wildlife corridor, Bjorkman said.
Ultimately, Drapkin told the Council that city staff, the Coastal Commission, and a team of biologists have reviewed the project thoroughly and are confident in the approval.
The Council rejected Fudge’s allegation of an abuse of discretion by the Planning Commission in approving the Ranch restoration plans.