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Balancing Coastal Perspectives

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

The lights were blazing all night long in the AVCO Community Developers’ property south of Monarch Bay. Giant grading machines were scraping non-stop through the hillsides, shaping landforms for a new subdivision. It was fall of 1972. The public was very aware that California was threatened with development that could close off portions of the coast forever. Indications were that Prop. 20, the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act, was going to pass. AVCO had permits to grade and pushed ahead full speed, hoping to get enough of their project done before the act went into effect to avoid a requirement for a coastal permit.

It didn’t work. The courts finally ruled that AVCO’s grading was not sufficient to establish their right to proceed without a coastal permit.

This drama that unfolded right next door to South Laguna was our first exposure to the effect of the new Coastal Act and it emphasized the far-reaching effect it would have.

Since the adoption of the Coastal Act local residents, cities and counties have been preparing local coastal plans intended to protect coastal zone resources and provide for public access to the coast. There have been bureaucratic permitting problems, citizen complaints, budget cuts to the Commission by the state legislature, and lawsuits challenging the Commission’s decisions.

On the other hand, public access to the coast has been increased; coastal landforms, streams, and beaches are better protected. The Commission is a powerful advocate for the ocean and coast when proposals for off-shore oil, power plants, harbor developments and other large, potentially impactful projects are suggested. The Coastal Conservancy, whose board includes the chair of the Commission, has funded open space acquisitions, construction of public access ways, and park improvements like the recent remodel of Heisler Park.

The Commission provides oversight to assure that the public agencies that have adopted local coastal plans actually implement them.

This leads us to our most recent drama, the Coastal Commission appeal of Mark Christy’s Ranch project in Aliso Canyon by local resident Mark Fudge.

The Ranch was issued city building permits to remodel the motel units of the former Aliso Creek Inn. Construction went on for months. Then in May, the Planning Commission reviewed a proposal to divide some of the rooms into two, to make a new entrance near the restaurant and clubhouse, add a spa and employee lounge, and allow for valet parking. The Planning Commission approved it unanimously. It seemed like smooth sailing to complete the project and reopen the hotel and restaurant.

However, the appeal put a halt to the items that the Planning Commission approved and raised many other environmental and coastal access issues.

It has caused costly and difficult delays and uncertainty. Is there a way this situation could have been avoided? Could there have been a smoother process, getting the information, making the plans and involving the public in a more efficient, orderly and less stressful way?

Should the city have guided the applicant into a more comprehensive review process?

Some candidates at the campaign debate last week seemed to blame the Coastal Commission altogether. Council member Kelly Boyd said that we shouldn’t have an outside Commission telling us what to do in our own town. Others though, see that local control is not always enough and the Commission provides beneficial oversight.

Meantime the community is grateful for the Laguna-compatible concept being implemented at the Ranch, a low-key restoration and improvement of the existing facilities. Experiencing the magnificent Aliso Canyon will be available long-term. We don’t want this muddled, potentially confrontational process to jeopardize that. At the same time we want to respect the local coastal plan and the perspective of the Coastal Commission and deal appropriately with the concerns they raise.

Wednesday at the Commission’s hearing in Newport Beach busloads of Ranch supporters attended the public comment session. Eloquent comments from Christy and city officials supported the project and urged the Commission to schedule an early hearing date.

Let’s get on with it, in a Laguna community spirit.

 

Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former member of the Laguna Beach City Council.

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