Laguna Beach “Ranch” Hotel Renovation Violates Coastal Rules

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The California Coastal Commission failed to enforce the Coastal Act and did not require a Laguna hotel renovation to address destruction of affordable rooms and environmental habitat. The Commission did require them to pay $250,000 toward finishing the long-awaited Trail to the Sea, but this is by no means guarantees its completion.

Laguna Beach, Aliso Beach, The Ranch at Laguna

Coastal Commission staff issued a Notice of Violation of the Coastal Act to Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow LLC, with their remodel of the Ranch at Laguna Beach (formerly Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course). Unfortunately the Commission failed to mitigate the substantial issues. Photo By IronHiker.

Laguna Beach Hotel Renovation Violates Coastal Act, Environmental Rules

By Jack Eidt

Real estate money has transformed Laguna Beach as a one-time artist enclave that mobilized to save Laguna Canyon in 1989 to a hideaway for the wealthy and entitled. Case in point: “The Ranch” at Laguna Beach, a controversial hotel upgrade that destroys affordable accommodations and sensitive habitat with full permission of the city and now the California Coastal Commission (CCC).

Once a relatively low-cost 64-room modest coastal hotel (formerly Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course or before that Ben Brown’s), the plan will upgrade the facility into a 97-room boutique hotel. Plans approved by the City of Laguna Beach last year with deficient notice and no environmental documentation, also included reconfiguring restaurant and banquet facilities and adding a new spa, fitness center and employee lounge. Unfortunately, the old hotel was demolished under a separate over-the-counter permit with no hearings in 2013.  Seems the developer, Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow LLC fronted by Mark Christy, co-owner of both Hobie’s Surf Shop and Tuvalu Home Furnishings, has some friends in city government.

To make matters worse, they also slapped down an unpermitted “Outdoor Events Center” that included a 7,000 square foot concrete dance floor proximate to an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) that was a former Girl Scout Camp intended for use as public low cost camping. The latter move got the developer a “Notice of Violation” from the Coastal Commission last September.

We argued this new CCC hearing in Santa Monica should have led to a denial of the Coastal Development Permit for the project because significant deficiencies and violations of the Coastal Act have not been dealt with. These include the failure to address the loss of lower-cost visitor-serving overnight accommodations within the City of Laguna Beach, the after-the-fact approval of the illegal, unpermitted “Outdoor Events Center,” and the failure to require the applicant to complete a critical part of the final portion of the long-awaited Trail to the Sea.

In addition, 13 of these structures along Aliso Creek will be underwater in the next flood and the City’s approval did not adequately address the hazards of siting new development within the 100-year special flood hazard area. Flooding occurred at the site in 1969, 1992, 1998 and 2010. A recent study stated that 47 rooms were damaged in the 1992 flood, several feet of sediment were deposited on the property in the 1995 flood, and several million dollars in damages to the property occurred in the 1997-1998 El Nino-driven storm events. According to the zoning code, a major remodel involves the “demolition, removal, replacement and/or reconstruction of 50% or more of the existing structure,” which contrary to assertions of the developer, the city and even Coastal Commission staff, has clearly surpassed in a development that guts all systems of the existing buildings and adds 33 new rooms.

Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, cited as an example [of undue influence of the lobbyist Susan McCabe of McCabe & Co.] the Ranch at Laguna Beach, a hotel renovation. Commission staff had sought a developer’s fee of $1 million or more to mitigate the loss of affordable rooms. But the panel dropped the fee with no further public discussion after receiving “watered-down conditions” submitted in writing by an attorney working with McCabe, Jordan said.

“The commission voted to eliminate the fee that should have gone toward providing low-cost accommodations for the public and only required a much smaller donation for a trail,” she said. “I was appalled by the failure to vigorously protect the public interest. The developer essentially got away scot-free.” — Los Angeles Times

Laguna Beach, The Ranch, Aliso Canyon

The former Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course lies at the mouth of Aliso Canyon.

Loss of 64 Lower Cost Accommodations for Laguna and OC

The loss of 64 affordable overnight visitor-serving accommodations that existed for decades proximate to the beach must be accounted for, where rooms routinely start in the several hundred dollar range. This facility was lower cost based on published room rates and affordable design that allowed multiple guests per room and meals to be cooked on-site.

Protection of affordable visitor-serving overnight accommodations as a component of public access is required under the Coastal Act. The project increases the total number of new higher cost rooms on-site to 97 from the previous 64 lower cost rooms and offers numerous additional amenities as well. But, in doing so, nothing in the City’s record addresses the loss of the prior lower cost visitor-serving accommodations nor did the City require an in-lieu fee or any other mitigation to account for that loss. The Commission should have required the developer to replace 64 low-cost rooms partially on-site, and pay a sufficient in-lieu fee to establish the rest in close proximity along the coast. Yet they did not.

Privatizing and Paving a Girl Scout Camp in the Wild Woods

The Dolph Sisters generously donated this land to the Girl Scouts in 1935 deed restricted for a public camp for youth in Laguna Beach. In 2007, the parcel sold to Driftwood Properties/Athens Group with restrictions removed using a doctrine that could only be applied through a court action that was not demonstrated by the applicant. The Local Sierra Club Task Force has requested that under the Coastal Commission enforcement action that camping programs for underserved and at-risk youth throughout Orange County be implemented for the property. The offer of 12 small camping trips per year for up to 40 persons at a time administered by a non-profit is woefully deficient and not public.

Additionally, the developer should have been made to remove this unpermitted dance floor and restore the site to its former environmental habitat and public use.

Mountains to the Sea Trail Must Connect to Aliso Beach

Over 40 years ago, the 16-mile “Mountains to the Sea” Trail linkage was adopted by the County of Orange Master Plan of Trails, codified under the Local Coastal Program (LCP) and the public access policies of the Coastal Act, to connect the headwaters of Aliso Creek in the Cleveland National Forest, to the Pacific Ocean at Aliso Beach. The meandering trail now transports bikers, hikers and nature enthusiasts along Aliso Creek through the unincorporated areas of Orange County as well as five cities, with only the stretch through Laguna remaining uncompleted.

This property owner acquired the hotel and golf course with full knowledge of this connection and has even admitted it is feasible and can be made safe along the northern boundary of the golf course. The Laguna Beach Open Space Element and the certified LCP demonstrate this location as well, along the floor of Aliso Canyon generally following the “Girl Scout” easement through the Golf Course. Talk of a “floating easement” that would lead off-site into sensitive habitat would not be acceptable, but that was what the CCC agreed to.

In the end, the Commission agreed to require the developer to pay $250,000 toward completing the trail, assembling property by adjacent owners and the hiring of an overseeing agency. While this offer to dedicate is important to provide for a potential trail in the future, it is not the same as actually building the trail through the subject property, paid directly by the developer. Talk of a short-term intermittent shuttle was also shelved. We argued the shuttle would not fulfill Coastal Act access requirements regarding inland recreation, and creates issues related to funding, parking, access, fees, and other burdens and unnecessary obligations for both recreational users and beach-goers. Unfortunately, the decision leaves no short- or mid- term trail solution, and a long-term trail is by no means guaranteed.

What’s Next?

The lesson: city government from the standpoint of the public good in Laguna Beach is broken. Money rules the roost, and the cozy interrelationship between campaign money and decision making has produced serious lapses of social and environmental protection indicative in this “Ranch” project. Can we depend upon the Coastal Commission to counterbalance the clearly compromised wheels of government in this artist colony gone to the billionaires? No, we cannot. The CCC weak staff report turned out to be their strongest statement, with Commissioners agreeing to let the developer slide, an inauspicious day for the California coast.

Updated May 4, 2016.

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt