Court Rules Laguna Erred in Ranch Permit

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Setting up for overnight visitors at Scout Camp.
Setting up for overnight visitors at Scout Camp.

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled the city of Laguna Beach acted unlawfully in allowing the owners of the Ranch golf resort in Aliso Canyon to transform a derelict girl scout camp into an outdoor event center without environmental review.

Superior Court Judge William D. Claster ordered the city of Laguna Beach to void its determination that a section of the resort known as Scout Camp was excused from complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires an assessment of impact prior to development. Such an order could require the city to revisit its development approval for Scout Camp, possibly requiring an environmental assessment open to public scrutiny and options to mitigate impact.

Claster, in a decision issued Tuesday, March 20, also mandated that the city reconsider its process of exempting from environmental assessment any unfinished development within the 84-acre enclave.

That portion of the ruling appears moot as the owner says no other plans are pending.

Since changing hands in 2013, the run-down property has undergone considerable renovation, including the addition of a spa and the reconfiguring of guest rooms and the restaurant banquet space. A nine-hole golf course separates the 97 remodeled hotel rooms from Scout Camp, which operates as a venue in daylight hours and hosts 40 campers at a time in a partnership with the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. The project received unanimous approvals in 2014 from the City Council and Planning Commission. No formal environmental impact report was required.

City Attorney Phil Kohn said discussions have yet to take place over whether to appeal the ruling, which only partly favored the plaintiff, Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge. “The city will have to review the decision and its options,” City Manager John Pietig said.

Fudge owns a historic home that overlooks Aliso Canyon and has developed a reputation for contesting the city’s land use decisions, many involving CEQA. His attorney said he could not be reached for comment.

The most recent suit, filed in Orange County Superior Court in 2016, comes a year after Fudge lost another legal battle contesting the state Coastal Commission’s 9-1 vote to green-light renovations on the property with certain conditions.

“While the bulk of the ruling was in our favor, the court appears to have questions about very limited elements of the City’s procedural review process as it relates to the Scout Camp,” said Ranch principal Mark Christy. “Challenging technicalities is par for his course as he has challenged the validity of several City hearings, Design Review meetings and many other projects completely unrelated to ours. Everyone has to have a purpose I suppose.”

The judge ordered Fudge’s attorney to submit a proposed judgment. At a future hearing, he will determine the possible recovery of attorney’s fees.

In its filing, the city’s attorney argued that a conditional use permit for the project was approved lawfully and qualified for an environmental exemption because it would result in negligible expansion of use.

Once known as Elizabeth Dolph Scout Camp, the area shaded by a eucalyptus grove was transferred to the YMCA in 1967, but fell into disrepair in the ‘70s. In recent decades, it was used as a dumping ground, the ruling says.

Under Christy’s tenure, debris and trash were removed, a pathway and concrete pad installed, and an orchard planted. The venue was used for fundraisers and weddings, though Coastal Commission-imposed sound and time limitations now constrain its use.

Steven Kaufmann, an attorney representing the Ranch’s legal entity, Laguna Beach Golf and Bungalow Village LLC, said in a Feb. 23 filing that arguments raised in Fudge’s lawsuit are frivolous. He pointed out that Fudge’s appeal of the city’s decisions were considered and rejected by the Coastal Commission, which set its own conditions, and that they, too, have been upheld.

“However the dust settles, any usage limitations for Scout Camp will not affect the general operations of The Ranch as events of all types and sizes have continuously occurred indoors and outdoors on the other 85-acres since 1950 and will continue to do so. It would just be tragic to lose the ability to show these kids the wonders of camping in this beautiful little setting,” Christy said.

Emergency training for civilians took place at Scout Camp in 2017.
Emergency training for civilians took place at Scout Camp in 2017.

 

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13 COMMENTS

  1. The Ranch has done our lovely city wrong. Circumventing rules and zoning is not the only cause for a pause. Where is the dedicated PATH the Ranch promised to link Aliso Wood Canyon to the Aliso Creek beach?

    And Ranch officials don’t give a daft reply that you’re concerned about golf balls hitting pedestrians and bicyclists….surely living up to your promise of a dedicated path is safer for walkers, hikers and bikes than being on PCH.

    The food is mediocre and service horrible too, but i digress….

  2. No good deed….
    For over three years, a very small contentious group has seemingly set out to undermine the efforts to restore and preserve The Ranch at Laguna Beach. The transformation of an outdated hotel and restaurant into a world class destination has been an arduous task, primarily because of delays and legal proceedings that threatened to derail the project. Well, that train has left…. and like most, we’re ecstatic and grateful. The technicalities that have surfaced again have been addressed numerous times as mentioned in this article.
    In the short time that Mark Christy and his management team have operated the property, it has become the jewel that everyone knew it could be. The Ranch at Laguna Beach is the only “Geo Certified” golf course in California. This is the highest international accreditation for environmentally responsible golf operations.
    The Ranch is also the only National Geographic Unique Lodge in California (one of fewer than 60 in the world) as certified by National Geographic, recognizing environmental stewardship and experiential operation.
    There have been countless events, musical performances, weddings, fund raisers, and meetings taking place at this tranquil spot right here in town. New organic jobs have been created and locals likely see “guests” visiting their stores and boutiques.
    The “Scout Camp” area of the Ranch was literally a dumpsite for the golf course. The approximately 2 acre, Coastal Commission approved parcel, is now a beautiful setting utilized as a camp for kids, as well as a daytime event area. Kids are introduced to oceanography in coordination with The Ocean Institute of Dana Point, as well as various educational nature classes. In addition, there is a very large organic vegetable garden that is managed by The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano.
    To be clear, The Ranch never promised to build a bike trail, but they have contributed $250,000 to help facilitate its design and construction. By virtue of the coastal commission approval of the project , The Ranch is not involved in the actual design and construction, but look forward to seeing it completed. As a golfer who has hit hundreds of errant shots on this course, I can attest to the obvious need for the trail to be out of the danger zone (as defined not by The Ranch but by ALTA designs, the states foremost advocate of public trails in and around other uses).
    I’ve been coming here for many years and am so thankful for the preservation of this iconic treasure we can share with generations to come…a sentiment that is echoed by the vast majority of locals and reputable environmental groups. Mark Christy and his team have always had the best intentions for preserving The Ranch and Laguna Beach. Thankfully they had the stamina and focus to deal with the challenges presented by a few disenchanted naysayers.

  3. I’ll put my hat in Mark Christy’s corner any day. He, his family and his business enterprises have been good stewards to Laguna for decades… I’ve never heard of Mr. Fudge nor Mr
    Schraff but their frivolous lawsuits, opposition and their negativity have no place here. Leisure World or Irvine maybe, but not here.

  4. The Ranch has done an amazing job of cleaning up, and utilizing space for the benefit of the community. They have always been focused on providing a better experience for all, both from an environmental awareness and recreational perspective.
    I wholeheartedly disagree with Theodore’s assessment posted above. I suspect that if they intended to do something and did not, it was likely that they could not. Same as the scout camp.
    Go support the Ranch. They care about the community. The food IS great, and the service is as well.
    #theodoreisjustcranky

  5. Nobody stands with you, Mark Fudge. You continue to sue and sue and obstruct the Ranch, the city and everyone involved in a project that is one of the few to receive universal approval and celebration from environmental, civic and city groups, and now you’re going after the girl scouts!? Why didn’t you sue when that site, out by the 5th tee, was for years a trash dump and the property was over grown and run down? Why not sue the developers building 10,000 homes up the 133? The Ranch has been re-developed into a world-class beauty right at your doorstep and you should be glad. These are people doing good and right in this town. Your puzzling and petulant campaign shows how our open society’s legal system can be subverted by narrow interests, with little or no standing, and reflects poorly upon you. Mr. Fudge, nobody stands with you, save Mr. Schraf, and it’s time to end your witch hunt, leave the girl scouts and The Ranch, alone and move on. (I completely disagree with Mr. Schraf’s odd comment above- Nobody promised to build you a path through a golf course. There’s never been one before, so why your urgency now? And the food and service are 5 times better than they ever were.) I very publicly oppose your campaign.

  6. As a professional land use and regulatory compliance advisor myself these past 20 years, I’m still amazed that after living in Laguna for 45 years my neighbors still seem to be unknowledgeable regarding CEQA accountability & the Cal Coastal Commission’s “quasi-jurisdictional” role & powers, their at times/under certain circumstances overlapping interplay.
    The CCC is NOT specifically empowered nor a regulator per se regarding CEQA nuances/prescriptions……So with all due respect to those who’ve posted here, blaming the applicant (The Ranch) and/or their consultants doesn’t address the court’s concerns: The City has a dual and oftentimes conflicting role as the Local Lead Agency (LLA) regarding not only the Cal Coastal Act but also CEQA. This is a case of lapsed/failed staff analyses and political influence. The Ranch might have better off without Council members holding fundraisers as it invited pre-disposed criticism.
    The LLA is responsible in a dual role: CEQA/NEPA + the Cal Coastal Act. Those who wish to argue should read what are and what are NOT delegated (maybe relegated’s better term?).
    GIVEN: Developers/applicants (and I’ve had clients on both sides of these equations) seek the maximum regarding entitlements, what they can do, their PROGRAM (activities) as robust as they can acquire. Opponents attempt to restrict, i.e., acquire concessions and exactions during the CEQA process, assure the PROGRAM’s impacts are mitigated (via CUP, approved local plans, etc.), are minimally adverse….which in this case The Ranch ended up bouncing around the CCC hearing process.
    Frankly? It’s another example of the City falling short.
    Instead of shooting (or shouting down) the messenger, land use/zoning isn’t a popularity contest…..so whether Mark Christy is/isn’t a nice guy or Mark Fudge is/isn’t have no relevance in the court’s opinions. The Ranch was/is vulnerable to litigation because the City via its ineptitude and bias, via perennially cutting CEQA corners and yep, once again getting caught as is its sorry history, screwed up.
    The falsely portrayed as “warm & fuzzy” Artists Work Live in the Canyon, still circling the judicial system drain, has the same Las Vegas moneybags as those trying to shove the Coast Inn project down our collective throats.
    Both are too much PROGRAM for such compressed, problematic sites. The same development group, backed by really BIG out of town $$$, attempting to get as many entitlements, maximize the location Program, look for the Coast Inn to go through the same Wash, Rinse, Spin, Wash, Rinse, Spin cycle as The Ranch if it ever gets progressed.
    The City’s inability via special interest-backed, commerce first, residents second Council to provide equitable and litigation-proof oversight leaves monolithic projects especially vulnerable to protracted disputes. Sound familiar?
    The developer’s consultants, the City advocacy and its peer review vendors tell the applicant what they want to hear, and per law WE, the PEOPLE end up having to pay to defend our City’s poor decisions.
    As they say, we’re a nation of laws, not men. Our Council, City Manager and City attorney act outraged, often act personally offended when in fact they created or contributed a great deal to the confrontations.

  7. Mr. Christie and his frieds at the City cut quite a few corners in the way they went about their business at The Ranch, and they got caught. I think that point was buried somewhere in this love letter.

    Later on, he also got caught removing riparian vegetation from Aliso Creek, far from where he was allowed to remove it. His biological consultants have had to be corrected repeatedly as they have recommended planting various species not native to this botanically unique area. All the “environmentalists” complaining about Mr. Fudge ought to be thanking him for paying attention and getting involved.

    Anyone familiar with the details of what actually happened would know that this was not a “frivolous” lawsuit. In fact, the notion that anyone can win a “frivolous” CEQA case, in Orange County no less, is laughable. Mr. Christie does a lot of good things for his community, but this doesn’t put him or the City above the law. I am thsnkful that we still have a judicial system where facts can win out over PR campaigns and political connections.

  8. Please give an update on the trail. While you weren’t FORCED to build it, do the right thing and make sure it progresses along. It honestly should drive additional traffic to the property and make you guys more $$.

    What it Yosemite didn’t have any public access trails? Given that it’s “Laguna’s Yosemite” in Christy’s own words, do the right thing.

  9. I remember all too well walking the grounds and viewing the renderings of the proposed housing development that was being promulgated by the previous owners of the canyon at Aliso Creek. I remember how those renderings stood in stark contrast to the serene beauty that was surrounding me, and I was horrified to imagine how this development would butcher and limit access to such a serene habitat.

    As it happened, this never came to pass. When the prior ownership decided to divest itself of the property, we were all fortunate that the current ownership of the Ranch stepped up to preserve and improve one of our premiere landmarks.

    The new owners came in with a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright philosophy. They updated the property in harmony with nature and the environment, never forgetting that the canyon itself is the focal point. The enhancement of the property includes an area that was originally used by the Girl Scouts and is currently utilized as an outdoor classroom in concert with the Ocean Institute, emphasizing the importance of preserving our ocean and its surrounding environment.

    When it comes to the enchanted canyon at Aliso Creek or for that matter, any of the other natural, cultural and historical landmarks in our town, it is critical for the community to come together and encourage the City to exercise all legal rights and remedies to preserve and maintain them.

    If the community and the City fail to do so, we risk losing forever the character and charm of our unique town. We must make sure they don’t “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”.

  10. Let’s be honest, there has got to be a way for people from Laguna to access the serenity of woods canyon that’s safe and practical. I’m not saying the pathway needs to go down the fairway, I’m just asking for some action on the part of the ranch to get a trail constructed. Humans are smart and we solve problems, so why don’t we solve this one? This has been in the works for decades – and they knew that before buying the property – and there’s no doubt it’s the right thing to do.

    Why doesn’t the ranch host a fundraiser for the trail’s construction? That would be an act of good faith.

  11. @ R.Hamilton and T.Schraf: Are you seriously saying that the never-ending Fudge campaign is fighting the good fight for the environment and the people of Laguna to save us from some imagined conspiracy or wrong doing? Are you truly representing Mark Fudge’s motivation (and yours) is selfless and only concerned with the well-being of the community, and that we should be thankful he’s paying attention to protect us all? No, this is about some other agenda and it stinks.

    The worst of it is you offer no resources or bridge-building or thoughtful solutions. The development group is doing a wonderful thing here, why not coalition? A girl scout camp is better than a trash dump and a clean, green resort is miles better than the run down, overgrown “Ben Browns” of yesteryear. If you truly care, why not advance positive ideas or organize a fundraiser or volunteer to work in the canyon re-planting native species? Or go picket the 10,000 homes being built out the 133? But don’t pretend that Mark Fudge is “fighting the good fight” for this town or the environment.

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