The California Coastal Commission has agreed to hold a public hearing on whether a hotel renovation project in Aliso Canyon, approved by the Laguna Beach Planning Commission in May, violates coastal laws, especially regarding environmental protection.
At their regular meeting Wednesday in Ventura, coastal commissioners heeded concerns of the agency's staff about elements of Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow LLC's plans to remodel a 64-room hotel, restaurant, banquet and nine-hole golf course facility called the Ranch at Laguna Beach (formerly Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course).
On May 14, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a coastal development permit and conditional use permit for the project at 31106 S. Coast Hwy. Lifelong Laguna Beach resident and Hobie Surf Shop co-owner Mark Christy is the principal investor in the property.
But the following month, Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge appealed the commission's decision, challenging the project on several grounds, including possible harm to the environment and public access and any reduction to overall affordable overnight housing.
According to Christy, the facility, with 23 detached buildings on 84 acres across South Coast Highway from Aliso Beach Park, is in dire need of upgrades to make the 1960s-era buildings fire safe and compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. He also noted that it was essential to repair cracking and rotting exteriors.
"We're restoring this place that has been neglected," Christy said. "The televisions are from the 1980s and the carpet hasn't been touched in decades."
The owners want to modify existing building facades and reduce the square footage — by more than 10,000 square feet, Christy said — redo the hotel lobby and restaurant area, construct a wellness spa and fitness center and boost the stock of hotel rooms within existing buildings.
Plans call for splitting some rooms in half, boosting the number of suites to 97.
In Fudge's appeal, contained within the Coastal Commission's staff report, he alleges the project lacked sufficient environmental review and was not properly revealed to the public. He also complained about lack of clarity on room rates and whether the city's stock of affordable overnight housing might be diminished as a result of the pricing.
Fudge also claims the proposal is inconsistent with Laguna's Local Coastal Plan's historic preservation policies.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, with hiking and bicycle trails, abuts the property to the east.
"The city of Laguna Beach conducted an unlawful development process and allowed the applicant to obtain permits he had no reasonable expectation of receiving," Fudge's appeal says. "The Planning Commission was considering a project in an environmentally sensitive area that had inadequate or no environmental review."
The property runs parallel to Aliso Creek and no part of the proposed project would encroach on any environmentally sensitive area, Christy said.
Coastal Commission staff want to take a closer look at potential environmental harm.
"Due to [the proposed project's] location within a flood plain and potential historical and archaeological significance, the site is of local and statewide significance, worthy of the most careful planning efforts," the coastal staff report says. "The city's action lacks legal support ... because its action on the [coastal development permit] could adversely impact valuable coastal resources, including recreational and access amenities."
After receiving the necessary permits and assurances from the city that the changes met all applicable laws, Christy began portions of the remodel work. Crews have stripped all of the hotel buildings to their wood frames as they install fire sprinklers and add insulation to walls, Christy said.
In December, the city issued Christy a building permit for the existing work.
None of the improvements required a coastal development permit or any other city discretionary permits, according to a July 8 letter signed by Laguna's new Community Development Director Gregory Pfost and sent to the Coastal Commission.
"The remodel project does not increase the square footage of existing buildings or structures by 50% and does not remove, replace or reconstruct more than 50% of the structures," the city's letter says.
Since the project does not meet the threshold for a major remodel or a new development, creating a public trail through the property is not required, according to the city.
Visitors currently access the hotel and golf course via a paved 25-foot-wide road that travels a quarter mile from South Coast Highway to the main parking lot.
"Had the project been a new development or a major remodel, public access through the site would likely entail significant environmental modification and degradation to the canyon walls because there is no existing public trail through the golf course, nor can it be accommodated to hazards from flying golf balls," the city's letter says.
Fudge had not alerted local planning commissioners to his worries about beach access and overnight accommodations. He said during the Planning Commission meeting that his main concern has to do with the California Environmental Quality Act.
"It says the project is exempt, and I'm curious how that was arrived at," he said at the meeting. "From what I can see in the canyon there are a number of protected wildlife and plant life species that some concern has to be given to. I don't think the project will affect those, but that doesn't alleviate the city and staff from doing the initial study."
The city staff report says the proposed renovation is exempt from CEQA scrutiny.
"The proposed restoration and remodel of the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course does not include the use of significant amounts of hazardous material or a net floor increase to any building that exceeds 2,500 square feet and therefore is considered exempt [from the act]," the report says.
Christy, whose investor group purchased the property in June 2013 from Aliso Creek Properties LLC for an undisclosed amount, is well aware of the site's history. He grew up golfing at the course, which opened in 1950, and said he wants to bring a cottage feel to the hotel suites similar to the beachside accommodations he and his family enjoyed at Crystal Cove State Park.
Hotel suites will have board games such as Life and Pick Up Sticks, Christy said.
On Tuesday, he drove a golf cart to a spot near the third hole where the Thurston homsetead once stood. Christy pointed to the area, between two trees, and said: "I want to install stones and a plaque there," commemorating the family that settled Laguna in the 1870s.
Christy worked with Laguna Canyon Foundation President Derek Ostensen to trim trees and disputes a claim in Fudge's appeal that trees were trimmed during endangered birds' nesting and roosting season.
"I've paid Ostensen since November to ensure I'm doing everything right," Christy said. "It's an insult that [Fudge] is throwing this out there. We don't need a permit to trim trees."
Christy said crews will also replace more than 8,000 square feet of concrete and other paved surfaces with permeable material, such as decomposed granite, so rain water seeps into the soil without flowing off the property.
The project has received support from former Laguna Beach City Council members, environmental stewards Ann Christoph, Verna Rollinger and Bobbie Minkin, and the Laguna Art Museum.
"I don't want to fight," Christy said. "The project will stand on its own merits.
"This is Laguna's Fenway Park. There are sacred places in Laguna, but none more sacred than this."
Coastal Commissioners on Wednesday did not set a specific date for the public hearing.