Laguna Beach resident sues city, state over hotel project's approval

Lawsuit says Laguna Beach, state Coastal Commission erred in approving Aliso Canyon renovation without an EIR

A Laguna Beach resident is suing the city and the California Coastal Commission over their approval of a hotel renovation project in Aliso Canyon, contending the project should have undergone greater environmental scrutiny.

Mark Fudge filed the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court on March 5 regarding an 84-acre property known as the Ranch at Laguna Beach. It is owned by Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow Village.

Fudge previously appealed the Planning Commission's May 2014 approval of the project directly to the Coastal Commission. The commission denied Fudge's appeal and approved a coastal development permit for the project at a hearing in January.

Principal investor and Laguna resident Mark Christy is remodeling the facility, formerly called Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course, to offer guests improved amenities.

Fudge says that an environmental impact report should have been prepared and that the city did not prove such an analysis was not needed for an area that includes Aliso Creek, which the coastal staff described as a "rare habitat" in its staff report.

The city is still reviewing the lawsuit, City Manager John Pietig wrote in an email.

The Coastal Commission is at fault, Fudge says, for failing to uphold provisions of the California Coastal Act regarding the project.

"The Coastal Commission is required by law to make a finding that the project has complied with [the California Environmental Quality Act] before any coastal development permit is approved," according to the suit. "Rather than disapprove the proposed permit as required by law, the Coastal Commission staff erred by making its own unilateral and unsupported finding that the proposed permit, as conditioned, complied with CEQA.

"It found that there were no other feasible alternatives or mitigation measures available which would substantially lessen any significant adverse impact which the activity may have on the environment."

Coastal Commission staff had not received a copy of the lawsuit as of midday Friday and had no comment, spokeswoman Sarah Christie said.

Christy said he read the lawsuit but otherwise declined to comment.

Planned renovations include increasing the number of rooms to 97. Christy wants to create 64 standard-sized hotel rooms by splitting 32 existing one-bedroom suites in half and removing the kitchens. A penthouse would be added by converting a former residence.

He stressed that work on the rooms is being done within the existing framework.

As part of the Coastal Commission's approval, Christy agreed to pay $250,000 for a consultant to design a pedestrian and bicycle trail that will help link inland property to the coastline. Commission staff had been concerned that the project would hinder public access.

Fudge wants a court to invalidate the Coastal Commission's approval of the project and bar it, the city and Christy from proceeding with "any activity that may result in any physical change in the environment on the project site until the respondents take all necessary steps to bring their actions in compliance with CEQA," according to the suit.

He is also seeking a court order to prohibit the city from approving any pending or future development applications on the property until the city complies with all aspects of the California Environmental Quality Act, its municipal code and its general plan.

The city said in a letter to the Coastal Commission last July that a coastal development permit was not needed because the remodel work "does not increase the square footage of existing buildings by 50% and does not remove, replace or reconstruct more than 50% of structures," Community Development Director Greg Pfost wrote.

Fudge also alleges commissioners did not disclose conversations with Christy and his lawyer before and during the January hearing, and said such communications were illegal.

Bryce.alderton@latimes.com

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