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Calm Waters at Last

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How perfect and serene it must have seemed to the young mariner who surely peered up from his wooden tall ship and saw friendly Juaneno Indians dropping cattle hides down the distant cliff to be taken into trade.

About 150 years later, here’s what has happened to that beatific vision of Richard Henry Dana, whose novel of sea life, “Two Years Before the Mast,” is an American classic.

In its short life, the town named after him has gone through a brass-knuckled City Council recall campaign, a disemboweled redevelopment effort, tumult over proposed development of the virtually sacred Headlands and plans to revamp the harbor, plus other assorted subjects of internecine warfare.

Now, as Dana Point prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary of cityhood Friday, something incredibly strange is visiting the community of 36,000: political calm, relative though it may be.

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It’s not that everybody’s fully euphoric. But the facts are undeniable. After the November election, the new council has been playing nice. Controversy over upgrading the nearly 30-year-old harbor has simmered down. There’s visible interest in revitalizing the pokey downtown. And the Headlands? Well, you can’t have everything, though even that incendiary issue may be nearing resolution.

The city that passed through its infancy with banged-up knees and head bruises somehow has survived to early adulthood.

“There’s been a conciliatory attitude since the last election,” said developer Dave Busk, who is literally banking on the economic and cultural emergence of the somewhat hodgepodge commercial core. “Progress is actually happening. It’s been so slow.”

Dana Point is poised, despite apprehension in some quarters, to become an even bigger magnet for tourists, about 1 million of whom visit the harbor annually, according to county figures.

Tourism is the city’s lifeblood--more than 40% of the budget revenue comes from bed taxes generated by Dana Point’s 1,400 hotel rooms. But it’s also a delicate topic as some residents worry that unbridled tourism will tarnish the town’s identity as a sweet, unassuming little place by the sea.

Clued-in business and tourism promoters invoke a modest euphemism.

“When I got here, I was told by some people at the chamber, ‘We say “visitors,” not “tourists,” ’ because tourism was perceived negatively by some in the community,” recalls Penny Maynard, Chamber of Commerce executive director.

Not everybody is totally buying into the new optimism, even on the threshold of yearlong activities planned to mark the birth of the city.

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“There’s really nothing in this town to celebrate,” snarled Geoffrey Lachner, an attorney and activist who recently made an unsuccessful run for the council. He remains wary that city officials are too developer-friendly and broods about what he regards as past mistakes.

Getting Better

Yet even Lachner guardedly thinks maybe, just maybe, some things are getting better. “People are more hopeful,” he allowed.

When voters approved incorporation in 1989, after previous failures, many believed home rule would outclass being governed by a county Board of Supervisors convening 40 miles away in Santa Ana.

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It didn’t take long for political fissures in Dana Point to bring down the boulders. Residents’ distrust prompted the council to retire the redevelopment agency that was set up soon after the city was formed.

A year later, in 1993, came the Molotov cocktail that burns to this day. A $500-million development plan was unveiled for the 122-acre Headlands--the last big piece of open coastal property in Southern California. The initial proposal included a 400-room hotel and 370 homes.

There were referendums and litigation to thwart the project and a losing effort to oust two council members whom critics asserted had caved in to developers.

So shrill was the rancor at council meetings that Dana Point gained a reputation for being a kind of Dodge City without the gunfire. At one point, a councilwoman was slapped on the wrist for entering City Hall after dark and copying reams of documents she felt had political significance.

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Meanwhile, plans to make over the aging county-owned harbor were under attack by many boaters who didn’t want their oasis more commercialized and tourist-oriented.

Over time, much has quieted.

After working with dissidents, the county this month approved conceptual plans to expand the harbor’s retail area by up to 25,000 square feet, add up to 50 hotel rooms to the area and increase parking. The costs have yet to be determined.

In March, county officials will get closer to deciding who will lease the facility, which opened in 1971 and accommodates 2,500 boats.

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As for the Headlands, the dispute has gone through more legal rounds than boxing night at the Olympic Auditorium. A court ruling, now being appealed, requires the city to drop its own Headlands plan and process the developer’s application.

A new developer for the property has downsized the project to 205 to 261 homes, the number depending on whether the city buys property for open space, and a 75- to 100-room resort overlooking the harbor.

Although the Headlands issue still stirs passions, it appears the smaller development scheme will become reality unless the city wins its appeal.

On the council, a different composition may have ushered in a time of healing.

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“I think there’ll be a lot less contention and name-calling,” said council veteran Harold R. Kaufman, who survived the recall. “We won’t be the laughingstock we used to be.”

He added: “We’re in our adolescence, politically. We’re beginning to mature.”

Some City Hall critics, including Lachner, are pleased by the recent selection of Ruby L. Netzley as mayor, saying she’s sympathetic to residents’ desires to protect the community from extremes.

To preserve the coastal “jewel,” said Netzley, leaders have “held the line to balance income with quality of life, always holding peaceful enjoyment of life first.”

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Improving the Harbor

With Dana Point about 95% built-out, the issues now, besides the Headlands, are about improving what already exists--namely the harbor, the downtown and Doheny Village, an old commercial enclave on the south side of town.

“We want this to become a beach-slash-destination resort community that has a small-town flavor,” said Patti Short, who is active in the business community. “We want to keep the dollars here.”

The Chamber of Commerce is working with its counterparts in neighboring San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano on a package to draw visitors to a broader array of attractions, such as the harbor, Mission San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente’s pedestrian-friendly downtown and pier.

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While tourism is money rolling in, some worry about keeping Dana Point an easygoing beach community.

“We need people,” Lachner said, “but it can go too far. The residents of this town came here because they ran from everywhere else in Orange County.”

Wary or not about hordes of visitors, most here agree the downtown needs a lot more juice. Its linearity robs it of cohesion and intimacy. Because it’s slightly removed from the harbor, there’s little pedestrian flow between the two. There are pleasing stores and restaurants--broken up by empty lots--but not quite enough to bring the core area to critical mass.

And there’s an indecisive mix of styles, although for a while the city adopted a New England architecture with gray frame buildings.

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“We have Cape Cod, Chinese Cod, Mexican Cod, Pueblo Cod,” said Short.

Dana Point’s director of community development, Ed Knight, said officials are devoted to making the downtown thrive. The chamber considers the nucleus of the downtown to be bordered by Pacific Coast Highway, La Plaza, Violet Lantern and Golden Lantern.

“What we’re trying to achieve is a unifying effect” that would, for instance, establish a pedestrian link between the harbor and the downtown, Knight said. Already, trees have been planted along the sidewalks as part of a beautification program.

Enter developer Busk, who switched from building custom homes to commercial projects such as the Piazza della Violetta, a 9,000-square-foot retail-office complex that starts construction in April.

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Between that and other plans, Busk hopes the downtown will be transformed.

‘The city needs some life, some restaurants, art galleries and shopping opportunities,” he said. He envisions upper-end boutiques, outdoor dining and places to stroll and dawdle.

“It’ll really be a hub, a place to be and be seen,” he said. “Dana Point has been a sleepy little town. People haven’t reached their potential here.”


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