By Daniel Langhorne, Special to Independent
A Laguna Beach couple lost their appeal to the City Council on Tuesday to block a creek vegetation restoration plan proposed by The Ranch at Laguna Beach, a resort hotel with spa, restaurant and nine-hole golf course in Aliso Canyon.
The City Council upheld in a 3-0 vote, with Councilwoman Toni Iseman and Councilman Rob Zur Schmiede absent, the Planning Commission’s decision in June to sign off on the resort’s proposal to restore areas of Aliso Creek impacted by unauthorized plant trimming and remove trees from a creek bed that were downed in January 2017 storm.
“Having reviewed the record, I believe there is substantial evidence to support the determinations that they made,” City Attorney Phil Kohn said.
The creek area under debate includes about 4.8 acres and requires the removal of invasive plant species and restoration of native riparian habitat. The Ranch at Laguna Beach has agreed to monitor the area for five years after the restoration is complete to stay on top of maintenance, which includes plant inspection, weeds and trash removal, pest control, and replacement of dead native plants.
The California Coastal Commission has already approved restoration with a coastal development permit and restoration plan that was developed by one of their biologists.
Mark and Sharon Fudge, whose property is adjacent to The Ranch, said the Planning Commission failed to follow the General Plan’s policy to restore and retain Aliso Creek in a natural state when they approved the project.
“The restoration plan before you allows the applicant to do a sawtooth or tooth gap treatment of the creek vegetation,” Sharon Fudge said.
Among other issues, the Fudges claimed the Planning Commissioners and city staffers did not offer adequate time to review their grievances submitted the day of the Planning Commission hearing on the creek restoration plan. They also argue that the Planning Commission failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act by reviewing the restoration plan on a piecemeal basis rather than in the context of the related remodel of the resort’s buildings.
The Fudges also argued that the Planning Commission failed to apply and consider the Laguna Beach Municipal Code’s restrictions on removing native vegetation and altering stream beds.
Ultimately, the creek vegetation restoration plan is tailored to benefit The Ranch’s golf operation, Sharon Fudge said.
“The plan to sculpt this creek, which is only necessary for golf play, is not in compliance with the General Plan,” she said.
In a report regarding the appeal, city staffers argue that the Fudges’ arguments were not supported by evidence, based on flawed interpretations of the Municipal Code, or already considered by the Coastal Commission.
“The record reflects that the Planning Commission carefully reviewed and considered the proposed restoration plan on two separate occasions; and similar to the findings of the Coastal Commission, the Planning Commission concluded the proposed restoration plan would improve the existing creek habitat,” the report said.
Mark Christy, owner of The Ranch at Laguna Beach, said his team is proud to have worked with the Coastal Commission and California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a better plan for restoring the portion of Aliso Creek on the resort’s property.
“It’s going to mitigate the number of times we have to go in over the course of the year to trim for the safety of the golfers,” Christy said.
Despite the City Council’s rejection of the appeal brought by him and his wife, Mark Fudge told the council members that he respected their opinions.
“It’s important to remember that I’m a zealous advocate for my positions,” he said. “I don’t take it personally when you don’t agree with me. I understand that’s your position [and] you’re just doing what you think is right.”