Upbeat Mood in Dana Point Fades as City Charts Future : Discontent: Some residents say officials have sold out to developers with designs on the once-cozy coastal community.
Just three short summers ago, a local liquor store circulated a popular bumper sticker that read: “It’s Party Time in Dana Point.”
It was a fitting slogan for the upbeat mood of the summer of 1988 in a community fresh from victory in a grass-roots cityhood drive and flush with the exhilaration of local control.
Today, however, some of that optimism has waned as Dana Point sits at the crossroads of its future. With two major resort developments about to reshape this once cozy coastal community, some residents have begun to question the direction city leaders are taking.
Tonight the City Council will discuss the focus of that discontent: the city’s first General Plan, a document the council passed unanimously July 9 and the subject of debate ever since.
The decision triggered a referendum drive by an outspoken group that claims the plan is evidence that the once-popular City Council has sold out to developers and the tourist trade, at the expense of residents’ quality of life.
Although the referendum petition was declared invalid due to a technicality, its spirit has survived, the backers claim. They note that more than 2,300 signatures were collected in only two weeks, a sure sign that there is some substance to their grumblings.
“We felt had we had the time, we could have easily gotten 4,000 signatures,” said Ernie Nelson, a local engineer and General Plan critic. “We believe the future of the city should be a decision of the community and not just a small council. It’s definitely not something that should be in the hands of a city staff and developers who don’t live here.”
Local attorney Darryl Paul goes further.
“I hate to say it, but I think we should recall the whole bunch,” said Paul, a frequent council critic. “The entire council is made up of Chamber of Commerce-backed people who are pro-tourism, pro-hotel . . . basically a direct endorsement of the chamber philosophy to bring more people into town and sell more T-shirts.”
Council members say much of this talk comes from a few malcontents. Ever since ground was broken for Dana Point Harbor in the late 1960s, the city was destined to be a major resort, they say.
“The die was cast long ago,” said City Councilwoman Judy Curreri, who walked the streets for cityhood in the late 1980s and became Dana Point’s first mayor. “We’ve always had the climate and the rest of the things we love here. We already had the Ritz-Carlton hotel; that didn’t change with cityhood.”
But after listening all summer to demands for a citywide vote on the plan, Curreri now says she will back the idea, along with Councilman Bill Bamattre.
“I want the populace at large to become involved, and I don’t know of a better way to do that than have an election,” Curreri said. “That’s one of the reasons we invited cityhood to begin with, to get people involved.”
City Councilwoman Eileen Krause disagrees. The concepts in a five-inch thick, 400-page General Plan are not the kind that can be read, digested and voted on by the electorate, she said.
“To vote on it doesn’t make sense,” Krause said. “If there are problems with part of it, we can fine tune them and fix them without going through this exercise. The General Plan can be amended four times a year. It doesn’t make sense to throw the whole thing out.”
The General Plan was 13 months in the making and the subject of 45 public meetings citywide.
Besides, Krause said, the vast majority of citizens supports the plan, as evidenced in a recent letter-writing campaign by the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce, the Capistrano Beach Chamber of Commerce and several civic and homeowners’ associations.
But it is at the grass-roots level that ill feelings remain, insists Maya Dunne, a Dana Point resident and a planner for the city of Los Angeles. The General Plan sends developers the wrong message, Dunne said. Instead of outlining exactly what the city wants, the plan glosses over the tough issues, she said.
“The General Plan is the city’s vision of the future . . . it’s the most important document the city ever produces,” Dunne said. “Everything you develop afterwards has to be consistent with it, that’s why we are concerned.”
The two proposed resorts are cases in point, Dunne said. One would include a 27-acre hotel and commercial complex and 47 acres of housing on a 119-acre promontory called the Headlands. The other, just across Coast Highway, would be a 232-acre resort with championship golf course, 238 residences and a 400-room hotel.
Both projects have been approved by the city in concept, but both will be studied further when the developers present final plans.
But Dunne said both projects ignore potential traffic problems, housing for hundreds of resort workers and specific open space designations, Dunne said.
“We aren’t saying there should be no development and no growth, but people want their community to be a liveable one,” Dunne said. “That means it has to be planned well. That starts with the General Plan.”
Those critical of the plan come mainly from a group of angry residents who surfaced last fall as the council began to rev up a redevelopment movement in parts of the six-square-mile city. Their public outcry persuaded the council to shelve redevelopment for the moment. But when redevelopment was included in the General Plan, the outcry began again.
“We feel like we give the council our input, and it gets immediately put on the back burner,” said Nelson, the outspoken General Plan foe. “It’s like the council has its own agenda. We convince them the community does not want redevelopment, the Planning Commission votes 5-0 to take redevelopment out of the General Plan completely, and all of that gets ignored. Something is happening that none of us can figure out.”
More likely what is happening is the process of homogenization of a new city made up of distinct small communities, Bamattre said. For years under the county’s jurisdiction, the city was divided into Capistrano Beach, Monarch Beach and Dana Point proper, and those biases remain, he said.
“All three areas had a certain amount of interest and control and, when you put them together, they’re sometimes at odds with each other,” Bamattre said. “Our frustration has been in trying to be responsive to all the different groups.”
Or the unrest could just be part of the process, Curreri suggested. Other new cities, such as Laguna Niguel, that are just beginning their general plans might expect similar unrest, she said.
Cityhood prompts involvement which, once the glamour of victory wears off, can result in a lack of understanding and trust, she said.
“I think what we are going through is part of the growing pains of a city,” she said. “People can’t expect to get 100% of what they want. That’s not achievable. But people can expect to get more accessibility to their leaders, and I think we have achieved that.”