Lawsuit Settled, Clearing Way for Irvine Coast Project

Times Urban Affairs Writer

With a trial about to start Tuesday, attorneys for the Irvine Co. and the Laguna Conservancy reached a settlement that allows the county’s biggest landowner to proceed with development of the Irvine Coast.

Last spring attorneys for the Laguna Conservancy sued in Superior Court to invalidate a bargain struck between the company and the Orange County Board of Supervisors that protects the company’s 9,432-acre Irvine Coast project in return for company financing of new roads and public facilities, including a new sheriff’s substation.

The project includes three hotels and 2,600 housing units, with 76% of the land set aside as open space.

Tuesday’s settlement is the latest in a series involving about 20 controversial development agreements approved by the supervisors. All but a few have been settled out of court.


Suit Still Pending

Among the cases still pending is a separate lawsuit, scheduled for a court hearing next week, seeking to block the Irvine Co.'s controversial Laguna Laurel planned community near the north end of Laguna Canyon.

The Laguna Conservancy claimed in the Irvine Coast lawsuit that the development agreement, approved last April, was intended to circumvent the countywide slow-growth ballot initiative then pending on the June 7 ballot. The measure was defeated, 56% to 44%.

But in the settlement reached Tuesday, the conservancy dropped its claim that such development agreements are unconstitutional because they bind future boards of supervisors to land-use policies approved by current board members.

In the settlement, the conservancy admitted that the development agreement is legally valid in return for extension of an offer by the Irvine Co. to sell two small parcels of flatland to Laguna Beach. The parcels, next to Laguna Canyon Road, are considered crucial to environmentalists seeking to preserve Laguna Canyon’s rural character.

Lawyer Questioned

In court Tuesday morning, Superior Court Judge William F. Rylaarsdam sharply questioned conservancy lawyer Gregory A. Hile about whether his lawsuit had actually obtained any benefit for his client. Hile cited the Irvine Co.'s offer to sell the small land parcels to Laguna Beach, but later, outside of court, company officials said they had a previous agreement with city officials containing the same offer.

“That’s true,” Hile said, “but the city hasn’t acted on it yet, and the offer was set to expire in May.”

Under the settlement reached Tuesday, the Irvine Co. cannot revoke the sales offer for at least a year.

Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said the city recently received about $10 million in state parkland money and hopes to use it in negotiating the purchase of these and other small parcels next to the canyon.

As part of the settlement, the Irvine Co. agreed to pay Hile’s law firm $6,250.

The settlement also provides that Caltrans can use the land, if necessary, for the planned widening of Laguna Canyon Road.

Laguna Conservancy officials did not return The Times Orange County Edition’s phone calls Tuesday.

‘Appearance of Abuse’

While praising the settlement, Gary Hunt, senior vice president of the Irvine Co., said the suit “represented an inescapable appearance of abuse of the legal system by the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.”

“They have already settled the majority of lawsuits filed against development agreements and have gained approximately $150,000 in settlements, and for no apparent reason other than their own self-aggrandizement,” Hunt said. “It has been a distasteful experience.”

Hile and his partner, Belinda Blacketer, have defended cash payments to them as necessary to defray the costs of filing and researching the lawsuits involved. However, slow-growth advocate Russ Burkett broke ranks with the lawyers last summer over the issue.

Still pending are lawsuits involving the planned community of Aliso Viejo, in which a tentative settlement was reached last week, the planned expansion of Coto de Caza, Talega Valley, Bear Brand Ranch and Laguna Laurel.