Adding a new twist to a six-year battle over the development of a Laguna Niguel ridgeline, the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday will discuss the possibility of spending up to $1 million to help buy the land, a 22-acre parcel owned by Las Vegas Casino owner Jack Binion.
Laguna Beach Councilman Steve Dicterow is recommending that the City Council “approve in concept” the possibility of helping to buy the property with money from a city fund that has been set aside for open space acquisition.
“The city presently has roughly $1 million available in its Open Space Fund, all or a portion of which could be used to help acquire this parcel,” Dicterow said in a memo to his colleagues.
The controversial development project, which calls for 22 homes to be built on the ridgeline, was approved by the Laguna Niguel City Council in 1995 but has been stalled by court rulings.
It has been vigorously opposed in the courts by residents at the south end of Laguna Beach, whose homes are beneath the proposed development site. The city of Laguna Beach has helped fund the legal challenge.
Dicterow says in his memo that there is “reasonable expectation” that the city of Laguna Niguel, the county, state and private parties might help with the purchase. But Laguna Niguel Mayor Patricia C. Bates said Friday that she does not expect her city to become involved.
“I don’t see the city’s participation in that,” she said. “We’ve got lots of things on our docket at the moment.”
Still, Bates said that if Laguna Beach were to become involved in a possible land purchase, it could “encourage the private sector that there’s some stability to it” and perhaps cause others to participate.
“I think what Steve’s trying to do is very beneficial,” she said. “I’m pleased he went forward and walked into the lion’s den.”
Ronald Harris, a South Laguna Civic Assn. member, also praised Dicterow’s proposal.
“It’s an example of people working together for the common good,” Harris said. “Everybody’s a winner.”
But Philip Bettencourt, a spokesman for the landowner, was skeptical. Even with the city’s help, Bettencourt said, he doubts that the development’s opponents could raise enough money to buy the land.
“We haven’t seen any evidence that there is any party that has the ability to raise, or the commitment to raise, the fair market value of the property,” he said. “When someone steps forward, we would give them every consideration.”
While Harris said he thinks the 22-acre parcel is now worth about "$2 million-plus,” Bettencourt said environment documents show that the land’s value after it is developed would be close to $10 million.
Meanwhile, the legal wrangling over the development continues.
In December, Orange County Superior Court Judge William F. McDonald ruled that the project’s boundaries had not been sufficiently defined and that it violated a provision of Laguna Niguel’s coastal policy because it would be visible from Coast Highway.
Binion representatives contend that the plan fully complies with the Local Coastal Plan.
The city of Laguna Niguel and the property owner petitioned the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal, seeking to have McDonald’s ruling set aside. The appeals court said Wednesday that the petition may have merit and requested that the South Laguna Civic Assn. respond by Feb. 19.
John Flynn, Binion’s attorney, called the latest court order “very significant” for the landowner in his attempt to get the project back on track.
However, Barbara Lichman, the attorney for the South Laguna Civic Assn., disputed that the latest legal maneuver has merit.
“It’s absolutely groundless, baseless and as ridiculous as every argument they’ve made at the trial court,” she said.
Residents beneath the development site have said the hilltop development would cause mudslides and flooding in their community. Citing concerns about the health and safety of the residents, the Laguna Beach City Council agreed to help finance the legal fight.