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.