New Deal Reached for Troubled Land

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By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent

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.

Laguna Beach will buy 12.8 acres of hillside property in Laguna Canyon for $1.3 million to resolve a lawsuit by the property owner over the city’s development conditions.

The deal for the land acquired by Jea Song, of LaMirada, in 2010 was announced Monday, July 31, a week after both parties revived negotiations after an earlier purchase agreement collapsed.

“I think it was a good result for the city, and for Mr. Song,” said Neil Popowitz, attorney for the property’s owner.

Song bought the property, located at 1199 Lewellyn Drive, for $685,000 with the intent of building a family home.

A battle royale erupted when Song tried to build on the previously fire-damaged property. Instead of treating it as fire-damaged, under which Song said municipal code allowed for some exceptions in the pre-build review process, the city treated it as if it were a new development, triggering fire department scrutiny. To obtain a building permit, fire officials required Song to rebuild the existing road, deemed inadequate for fire truck access, and set other conditions. The cost: an estimated $2 million.

“They were making demands for a water supply that were going to be impossible to comply with,” said Popowitz.

Song sued the city for $6 million in October of 2015. Last December, city officials agreed to buy the troubled property from Song for $1.6 million.  At the time, City Manager John Pietig admitted the purchase would “resolve potential legal disputes between the property owner and the city.”

City studies over geology, hydrology and drainage on the property showed “problematic conditions” with the property’s slope and recommended its stabilization to guard against slippage of dirt and debris on the Sawdust Festival grounds and Boys and Girls Club below. The slope’s stability had previously come to the attention of the Boys and Girls Club board as far back as the late 1990s, when the building was reconstructed, and it’s unknown if the instability was disclosed to Song before he purchased the land. To fix the slope it could cost up to $1 million, a city report said.

When Song rejected the city’s attempt to renegotiate the terms of the deal, the city manager asked for approval to rescind the initial offer and to make defense preparations for a court hearing Aug 28, according to the July 25 City Council agenda.

Instead, negotiations resumed last week and came to a different result. The ink was dry on a new purchase agreement by Thursday, July 27.

The purchase is compatible with city policies that encourage the preservation of high-value habitat and scenic areas, City Manager John Pietig says in the announcement.

Mayor Toni Iseman noted the prominence of the two parcels on a hillside behind the Sawdust Festival on the southern side of Laguna Canyon Road.

“Its acquisition demonstrates the City’s commitment to the preservation of the beautiful open space that surrounds the community of Laguna Beach that every generation will treasure,” Iseman said in the announcement.

Song could not be reached for comment, but his attorney said he is relieved to be finished with the ordeal.

“Randy is happy to move on with his life,” Popowitz said.

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