By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
There is a wrinkle in time in Laguna Canyon, a place where a crumbling road leads to nothing more than Randy Song’s broken dream.
“If he knew in 2010 what he knows now, he never would have done it. Never,” Neil Popowitz, a Los Angeles land use attorney for Song, said in an interview this week.
Song, of La Mirada, bought the property in 2010 for $685,000 with the intent of building a family home. As it sat then, 1199 Lewellyn Drive was an abandoned lot reached from a ruggedly twisting long driveway off of Laguna Canyon. That is exactly how the once fire-ravaged 12-acre parcel still sits, steeply tucked below Skyline Drive.
Except now it’s publicly owned land. The Laguna Beach City Council voted to buy the property from Song for $1.63 million Tuesday, Dec. 13.
“The city screwed up on this, and the taxpayers have to spend $1.63 million to buy this property,” said Jennifer Welsh Zeiter, president of the Laguna Beach Taxpayer’s Association.
Here’s the backstory: a home on the property was destroyed in a kitchen fire in 1982. Since then, the property has always sat vacant, changing hands a few times before being sold to Song as a foreclosure in 2010.
“At the time, the municipal code read that if your property had been damaged by fire you could repair it and restore it,” Popowitz said. “The city said yes, he could rebuild a house there without going back through all the zoning.” When Song submitted his building application, the city instead treated it as if it were a new development, Popowitz said.
That sent the application to the fire department for review, which deemed the road to 1199 Lewellyn inadequate for fire truck access. The fire department and city planners told Song he’d have to rebuild the road, at an estimated cost of $2 million, in order to build a house there.
“Well, you can’t do that, build a driveway that would in essence cost more than the house itself,” Popowitz said.
Unable to build, Song sued the city for $6 million in October of 2015.
“He told you he was going to sue on this because he thought you were wrong and you disregarded him,” Zeiter told council members Tuesday. “Now we find ourselves here a year later and we are paying $1.6 million for a property bought for $685,000.”
Zeiter and Canyon Acres resident Lorene Auger told council members their ire is less about the purchase than a lack of transparency about the deal.
“I applaud the acquisition of open space,” said Auger who nevertheless questioned why the agenda item omitted mention that the deal was struck as a legal settlement. “I’d like to know who the appraiser was,” she asked.
City Manager John Pietig says because the terms of sale are not final, the appraisal on the land is not yet public.
“It is recommended that remain confidential,” Pietig said.
Conversely, Canyon Acres resident Penelope Milne applauded the council’s purchase of the land, telling the council the inadequate fire access to the property puts Canyon Acres residents at risk.
“When this property owner bought this property at auction, he wanted to do things that were not legal and were dangerous,” Milne said. “And (the city) stepped in to stop it and we thank you for that.”
Zeiter says the real issue behind the property purchase is the lawsuit and that its purchase was misrepresented in the public agenda.
“On the agenda tonight, this was not listed as being involved in litigation. It was simply, ‘were going to buy it for open space’,” Zeiter said. “That is not true. This property would not be bought today had the city not been involved in this litigation.”
In response, Pietig said, “the open space parcel is one we have wanted to acquire for many years.”
He added, “this item will also resolve potential legal disputes between the property owner and the city. So it is both an acquisition of property and resolution of potential claims.”
If the city coveted the land, they should have bought it in 2010 when it was $600,000, Auger said.
By comparison, the Orange County Transportation Authority in 2015 paid $2.2 million for 115 acres of open space in the Aliso Wood Canyon area.
Council member Rob Zur Schmeide defended the land purchase. “I don’t think we screwed up on this one,” Zur Schmeide told the audience. “This is going to put an issue to bed that our council and planning commission has dealt with over many, many months.”
Auger asked for assurances the property will be restored, concrete remnants removed and the land declared unbuildable in perpetuity.
For Song, the lot represents six years of an uphill battle as steep and as rocky as the road to 1199 Lewellyn.
“He is happy this is done and he can move on with his life,” Popowitz said. “Did his marriage break up and he had a hell of a time? Yes. He is happy to move on.”
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