The view from The Knoll is spectacular: a 360-degree panorama that takes in Catalina, Signal Hill, Saddleback Mountain, San Juan Capistrano and, just below, the community of Laguna Beach.
But the hill also has become an ugly battleground, as the City of Laguna Beach and a developer, the Carma-Sandling Group of Irvine, have for the last 1 1/2 years fought over a proposed residential development on and around The Knoll.
The company’s proposed 108-unit subdivision, known as Laguna Heights, would be in an unincorporated area of Orange County, but the site is adjacent to--and accessible only by--a city street called Alta Laguna Boulevard.
The city has balked at approving the project all along, and has insisted that Carma-Sandling scale back its proposal to 70 units before it would agree to extend the boulevard to the city limits.
Negotiations that once held promise of a compromise now seem doomed, and it appears that the outcome will be decided in a courtroom.
The latest move in the controversy is the city’s approval Tuesday night of plans for a mini-park to be built on the 300-foot strip of land between the end of the boulevard and the city limits.
Carma-Sandling executives, saying they learned only last Friday that the mini-park was proposed last January and that the park proposal was on the council’s agenda for Tuesday, quickly filed a Superior Court action earlier Tuesday to try to prevent the City Council from considering the matter.
Hearing Set May 29
By blocking access to its 471-acre property, 93% of which would be dedicated for open space, Carma-Sandling argues the city would be “effectively condemning the property.”
A Superior Court commissioner declined to issue a temporary order against the city, instead ordering a court hearing May 29 for the city to explain its actions or drop its plans.
“I don’t think the mini-park was designed to block Carma-Sandling’s development,” said City Manager Ken Frank, who admitted the city had “given up” on negotiations with the developer.
Officials of Carma-Sandling, which is involved in two other suits over the project, said they were upset because city officials never mentioned the proposed park in several discussions of a proposed settlement of one of the suits in March and April.
“Basically, we’re being held ransom,” said Larry D. Lynch, the company’s vice president. “City officials think they can block our access as long as they want to and don’t feel they have to negotiate on the number of units (in the project).”
Lynch accused the city of failing to negotiate in good faith.
The city’s action may have been a surprise only in regard to its timing, though, because city officials have so adamantly opposed the development in the past that they vowed to block access to the land from Alta Laguna Boulevard.
Last Jan. 15, the City Council amended its master plan for parks to include one major park and three mini-parks. Lynch contends that the wording in the notice of the proposed parks was so obscure that he did not know it included the access parcel. He thought the notice referred to school district property adjacent to the access parcel, he said.
Frank said the company knew about the park proposal but that even if it did not, the city’s action would not render the company’s property any more useless.
“They can’t use it now, anyway,” Frank said. “We have maintained that we would not give them access across our property.”
He said that once the park--essentially an undeveloped rustic area with a few picnic tables--is constructed, it could be moved if the company agrees to build only 70 units.
In mapping out the subdivision, Carma-Sandling attorney Gregory W. Sanders of Costa Mesa said, the company relied on a 1982 City Council resolution stating that the parcel between the end of Alta Laguna Boulevard and the city limits was for “access control purposes.”
“Now the city has changed its position, much to our detriment,” Sanders said.
Traffic Increase Feared
Carma-Sandling had first applied to Laguna Beach for zoning approval. But city officials said they wanted fewer units on the land because they were concerned that the development would increase traffic on Park Avenue through the center of the Laguna Beach High School campus. Park is one of only two streets leading to the boulevard.
Saying a 70-unit subdivision would not be economically feasible, Carma-Sandling then went to the county for approval. It also filed suit against the city last year for failing to follow procedures required under the state Subdivision Map Act, but it has not served the suit on the city yet.
The county approved the plan last Dec. 19 after the developer agreed to dedicate 443 acres of the land as open space. The 108 units would be constructed on the remaining 28 acres.
The city then sued the county last January, claiming the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act by relying on an inadequate environmental impact report in rezoning the site. City officials have contended they would receive no revenue from the project yet would have to provide many services to the area.