Eroding Bluffs Raise Cost of Jinxed Property

Jea Song with his sons in the background on the hilltop property where he had hoped to build a home. He's selling the property to the city, which intends to keep it as open space.
Jea Song with his sons in the background on the hilltop property where he had hoped to build a home. He’s selling the property to the city, which intends to keep it as open space.

By Lauren Korduner, Special to the Independent

Erosion occurring at the city’s newly acquired 12.8 acres at 1199 Lewellyn Drive constitutes an “immediate threat to adjacent properties,” prompting city officials to authorize emergency contracts for nearly $700,000 to remedy the situation.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, Sept. 26, to authorize City Manager John Pietig to enter into emergency contracts to prevent further slippage on the grounds.  The property, acquired by the city in late July, overlooks over the Sawdust Festival, the Boys and Girls Club and a residential neighborhood. The recent land acquisition settled a dispute between the city and former owner Jae Song, whose lawsuit in 2015 over fire code regulations sought $6 million in damages. Song sold the property to the city for $1.3 million after nearly a year of negotiations.

The council has allocated $2.3 million for the property’s purchase and restoration over the past 10 months. Last December, the council approved $1.63 million for the purchase. An additional $668,000 was set aside for restoration when the council approved budget revisions in June. No additional funds were requested during the late September meeting.

Three line items in the million-dollar environmental restoration budget complicated the matter. The items concerned design and construction of a view park on the city’s new property. According to city officials, the view park idea was floated during earlier council meetings as they deliberated the land’s purchase. Approval of the view park items would have bypassed the need for bidding, design and Coastal Commission review.

In an email earlier this week, David Shissler, director of water quality, reiterated the city manager’s assertion that the ground conditions constitute an emergency.

“What we know for certain is that the property is in need of clean-up. There are areas of erosion needing attention. As the new owners, the city doesn’t want the storm season to cause any further deterioration to the property,” he said.

Shissler added that the view park plans were “conceptual only.”

During last week’s public hearing, eight people spoke, including Lewellyn Drive property owners, representatives from the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization. None voiced support of the park and nearly all expressed concerns over the stability of the private road to the property. Pietig and Shissler later agreed that the road is in poor condition.

CANDO president Penelope Milne said, during the meeting, she and her organization “appreciate the city having purchased” the Lewellyn property, but added that, “inviting more people into that somewhat hidden area seems to really increase the fire risk, increase the danger.”

Striking a note of deference to city officials, Milne later called the view park proposal an effort by city officials to meet a perceived need in the neighborhood. “They are not super invested in it,” Milne said.

Milne and others, including Laguna Canyon Foundation executive director Hallie Jones, agreed that open space preservation is a better use. “The goal of this project is and should be habitat restoration,” Jones said.

Daniel Wacholder, a property owner on Lewellyn Drive, said during public comments that he received no notice of the city’s improvements “other than seeing a bunch of trucks going by and wondering what was going on.” Others voiced similar complaints.

If a threat is imminent, “I’d fully support fixing it,” Wacholder said. He urged city officials to “share the reports” and “justify the emergency.”

“I think the neighbors’ concerns about lack of communication are valid. We are trying to expedite this. We certainly intended to have additional meetings and discuss it with them,” Pietig said during the September meeting.

Short- and long-term plans for the property will be discussed in upcoming meetings, said Shissler. Though he did not specify any dates, Shissler indicated meetings would take place as soon as possible. The city will mail letters to residents and an email list will also be developed, he said.

“The number and frequency of the meetings will be flexible to be sure that the neighborhood and interested residents have the information they need and the City has received their input,” Shissler said.

During the meeting, Council Member Bob Whalen apologized to the neighbors. “This is not a model of communication and we should’ve done better,” Whalen said. “We are going to need your cooperation to expedite this thing… Let’s work together in a positive manner,” Whalen said.

The council removed the view park items, totaling $190,000, from their immediate considerations and voted unanimously to approve the winterization measures.

Song purchased the 12.8 acres at 1199 Lewellyn Drive for $685,000 in 2010. He had planned on building a family home in the footprint of the original structure, which was lost to a fire in 1982. Song received assurances from the previous owner and city officials that he would encounter no issues in doing so. But when Song submitted building plans in February 2014, they were treated as a new development. City planners then required Song to comply with 17 new development conditions, including a fire department review. Conditions revealed by the review indicated improvements to water supply and the road to the property would have cost $2 million.

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  1. Should have just let him build and take his chances and liability. As a 40year resident renting an apartment downtown, the thought of opening a park in an already parkland just makes me think, “ugh, more traffic and less parking”. The new Laguna sucks.


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