In the past several weeks, some parts of the renovated hotel at the Ranch at Laguna Beach have quietly reopened after a two-year hiatus, and the resort in Aliso Canyon appears to be on track for a full opening in 2016.
The revamping of the former Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course, which consistently received poor reviews from visitors, is the vision of local resident and owner Mark Christy, who kept loyalties alive among locals during the makeover by keeping the golf course grounds open for duffers and community events. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
A stroll of the grounds and visit to the golf course, the patio overlooking the first hole, and Ben’s Pantry reveals a plan finally coming to fruition with guests already enjoying their stays in a batch of redone canyon rooms and two-bedroom cottages.
Less far along is a promised hiking trail across the property linking the ocean to a wilderness park, a stipulation of Coastal Commission approval.
According to the Ranch website, the property is in a preview phase during the final stages of construction on the hotel, with patrons highly excited about both what they have experienced and what is yet to come. “It was absolutely lovely and perfect. We’ve been fortunate to travel and stay,” said a testimonial from a Los Angeles visitor. A recent guest from Irvine said, “This place is a hidden gem. As soon as the word gets out on The Ranch at Laguna Beach, it will stay booked all year long.”
Laguna locals are also raving about the venue. “This is a pretty amazing place. It is incredible what Mark Christy has done restoring the luster of this property,” said Danielle Wilson, a board member of Glennwood House, which operates a residential home for young adults with physical and developmental disabilities. Wilson helped arrange the group’s recent fundraising gala at the Ranch. “This is the second year in a row that we have held our event here and the experience has been truly magical,” she said.
Echoing that sentiment, Pam Estes said guests of a Boys & Girls Club fundraiser “were ushered down to the fairway for a farm to table family style dinner under a full moon. It really felt like a magical evening in a beautiful and secluded setting,” the club’s executive director said.
The road to the perfect weekend getaway or picturesque benefit was not a smooth one for Christy and his supporters.
Most notably, delays over the past two years stalled the renovation’s momentum.
In July 2014, two months after Christy received permit approval to proceed with the makeover, Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge filed an appeal with the Coastal Commission, alleging malfeasance by city officials. The appeal was soundly defeated in a 9-1 yay vote in January. Fudge pressed on and in March appealed the decision in Los Angeles Superior Court. The suit alleged that the city and Coastal Commission actions authorizing permits violated environmental safeguards, historical considerations and local guidelines. Additionally, the filing contested the decisions on the grounds that the Commission had not properly followed due process considerations during the approval process.
Christy, the city and the Coastal Commission have each asked the court to dismiss the suit, saying the complaint fails to allege a valid cause of action, City Attorney Phil Kohn said this week. A hearing is set for Nov. 4.
Another thorny issue remains unresolved: a proposed trail through the property on the wish-list of park administrators for over 30 years. “This is about connecting individuals who want to access Aliso Beach through the Aliso Creek trail system,” said Harry Huggins, a retired Orange County parks asset manager. “To make this connection the Ranch property is an integral piece.”
The Coastal Commission agreed and required a $250,000 concession from Christy towards developing trail access. So far, what has been proposed does not provide “good, safe, or reliable access for pedestrians or bikers,” said Huggins, who is involved with negotiations as a regional trails advocate for Laguna Greenbelt, which works to preserve open space. “This trail concept comes down into the parking lot and follows down a steep embankment, which would be extremely difficult for the public to descend. What the Ranch has come up with is really a faux offer. Public access should be kept on one level, on the canyon floor and through the golf course,” said Huggins.
Christy previously rejected a canyon-bottom trail, in part due to fear of hikers getting beaned by golf balls. As a result, the outcome of negotiations over a safe trail route remains unclear. “The county would accept liability for a trail, provided the location is reliable and safe, which the proposed route is not,” Huggins said.
Despite unresolved issues, the Ranch renovation has the feel of something extraordinarily special. The final product will offer 97 rooms and promises world-class amenities and culinary excellence alongside golf in a setting remarkably untouched by development.
To make sure the word gets out, the resort sent a recent email blast to “friends and family” offering a discount on stays between Oct. 13 and Feb. 11. The official opening is expected in early 2016.