Civic activists charged Tuesday night that treasured wetlands were destroyed by development on 96 acres of once-public land, deeded to a developer in February, 1988, and now dotted with more than 100 houses.
In a sometimes stormy meeting, activists urged the Laguna Niguel Planning Commission to investigate whether Taylor Woodrow Homes California Ltd., the developer of the Marina Hills subdivision, had obtained the permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Fish and Game that would have been required for the new development.
"They filled in the canyon," said Laguna Niguel civic activist Cindy O'Neal. "All these improved parks that they have been talking about tonight are where they filled in the canyon that used to be a creek bed," including land on which the houses were built.
O'Neal and other activists responded with skepticism to a presentation by Taylor Woodrow Homes in which company officials offered their explanation of the land dispute.
In a procedural vote, the Planning Commission delayed action on a proposal to build an additional 16 homes in Marina Hills--the homes are already covered by a moratorium imposed last week by the City Council--but the firm used the forum to respond to questions raised about the project.
City officials have been stung with a spate of revelations in the past few weeks concerning the development of the property, which borders Salt Creek Corridor Regional Park. The Orange County district attorney's office is investigating the transfer of the 96 acres of public land to Taylor Woodrow by a councilman whose wife later went to work for the firm.
Taylor Woodrow President Jeff Prostor told the commission that his firm had provided a total of 100 acres of open space and parkland in exchange for the disputed 96 acres and another six acres of parks called for in original development plans. What had been designated for a condominium project is now a park, Prostor said.
"The primary shift was the fact that the desired emphasis was clearly on parks," Prostor added.
But civic activists disputed the claim, saying that there were only 12 acres of public parkland and an undetermined amount of open space.
The Planning Commission's vote temporarily delays construction of 16 luxury homes that Taylor Woodrow had been planning to build along Parc Vista Drive on 25 acres of land included in the Marina Hills planned community.
The commission's decision to delay the homes--and any other Taylor Woodrow construction in Marina Hills--comes after a series of tough measures approved last week by the Laguna Niguel City Council.
After a stormy session that ended last Wednesday, the council voted to sue Taylor Woodrow and to delay the firm's housing construction on the disputed 96 acres of once-public land.
Before Tuesday's vote, civic activists had urged planning commissioners to impose a blanket moratorium on all building in Marina Hills until an ongoing criminal investigation of the land transfer, along with an internal city probe of the transaction, is complete.
At the center of the controversy is 96 acres with an estimated development value of up to $70 million, which Laguna Niguel Councilman James F. Krembas deeded to Taylor Woodrow in February, 1988, three months before the firm hired his wife.
Krembas, who is the focus of an investigation by the district attorney, has said he signed the deed in the mistaken belief that it was part of another transaction and denied any impropriety. In that deal, Laguna Niguel was supposed to trade the developer three acres of slopes in exchange for eight acres of open space.
"It's hard to believe that you can have something worth $70 million and not be aware that you're giving it away," said Art Padgett, director of the Laguna Niguel Environmental Coalition, which lobbied for the moratorium.
And it was revealed last week that the city never formally obtained title to the eight acres offered by Taylor Woodrow. Representatives of the developer have said they sent the deed to Laguna Niguel officials, but it has never been filed in the county recorder's office.
The 96 acres at issue was first set aside for public use in an "irrevocable offer" to the county in 1985 from Avco-Bredero Niguel, then the major developer in Laguna Niguel. In August, 1987, the county assigned its rights to the property to the Laguna Niguel Community Services District.
Krembas was then vice president of the district board, which administered parkland in the area before Laguna Niguel's incorporation as a city earlier this year.