A Golf Course in Wild Park?

Times Staff Writer

The Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach is quietly planning a possible expansion that would include a golf course extending deep into a protected wilderness park, according to interviews, public records and other documents.

Although no plans have been formally presented or even made public, investors in the luxury resort have already begun to play a role in local politics, helping to bankroll a campaign against longtime City Councilman Wayne Baglin, who strongly objects to the idea.

The possible expansion of the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, a resort recently acquired by the nearby Montage, would involve land in Laguna Beach and in the neighboring county-owned Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. City, county, state and federal officials would have to approve the expansion.


Montage spokeswoman Marguarite Clark denied that the hotel had plans for a golf course expansion, and the hotel’s developers and other partners did not return calls. But county officials and private consultants who have met with Montage partners confirmed the accuracy of conceptual maps for an expansion, obtained by The Times.

Interviews and other documents show that the resort has been aggressively exploring the financial, legal, environmental, political and other challenges they would face in building a golf course in the 4,000-acre park, which is home to a variety of rare and endangered plants and animals. It is designated as a wildlife sanctuary, a protection that environmental lawyers say can be complicated and costly to reverse.

Speculation that the Montage was interested in converting part of the park into a private golf course swept through this seaside town of 23,000 earlier this year after the hotel, backed by money from EBay founder Pierre M. Omidyar and others, began acquiring land to expand its 262-room resort.

In March, hotel partners bought the nearby 62-room Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, which is public and has nine holes. A month later, the group acquired Driftwood Estates, a vacant 240-acre parcel that has government approval for development.The Montage, which opened nearly two years ago after years of controversy over environmental and public access issues, has won wide acclaim for its luxurious accommodations, sweeping views of the Pacific, Craftsman-style architecture and 20,000-square-foot oceanfront spa. Conde Nast Traveler, in its annual reader’s poll published this week, ranked the Montage the No. 2 resort in the United States.

But it doesn’t have an 18-hole golf course.

That would be remedied under plans that the hotel has quietly circulated. One of the conceptual maps drawn up by golf course architect Todd Eckenrode shows the Aliso Creek Inn property extending far north into the wilderness park on both sides of Aliso Creek. Other maps show plans for an 18-hole course with a warm-up range, a driving range and practice facility, and villas near the first hole.

Montage partners have arranged meetings with staff members in the office of county Supervisor Tom Wilson, whose district includes the area. They also have met with private environmental consultants and engineers, and members of Orange County agencies that would have to approve such a project, including the Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division.

Larry McKinney, the county’s manager of watershed and coastal resources, said he participated in two meetings. At the first, he and colleagues drove with Montage representatives upstream through the park and talked about some of the restoration projects the county has identified. A second meeting was held in August at the Aliso Creek Inn, McKinney said.

The hotel partners presented a variety of maps of the proposed golf course, including some identifying sensitive areas that would require permits, McKinney said. “It would be a sizable project,” he said.

McKinney said there was a “whole menu of public benefits” that might be available as “deal points” should the county consider the project, including restoration of pollution-plagued Aliso Creek and extension of a bicycle trail in the canyon all the way to the beach.

The land would most likely be leased to the hotel, providing revenue to the county, he said. “We’re not going to give them the land.”

The project will not be actively considered until next year, at Supervisor Wilson’s request, McKinney said. “We haven’t said yes or no,” he said.

McKinney and Holly Veale, who is Wilson’s chief of staff, said it was not unusual for elected officials and county staff to meet with companies about development plans.

But Baglin, the Laguna Beach councilman who opposes such a project, along with activists in the city, ask why the city was not included in those meetings, although the project is partly within city limits.

“To say the least, I was outraged,” Baglin said Thursday, recalling the day a Wilson aide confirmed rumors about the meetings. “I don’t consider county wilderness parkland available for commercial development.”

Baglin is one of three candidates vying for two open seats in next week’s election.Over the last few weeks, a group called Citizens for Good, Honest Government and Civility in Local Politics, and Therefore Against Wayne Baglin has taken out full-page newspaper ads, and reached voters with mailers and phone calls, attacking the councilman.

The group’s ads and mailers describe Baglin as a bully who impedes the political process. They also focus on his indictment two years ago by the Orange County Grand Jury for taking a commission on a real estate deal involving the city. Baglin later was acquitted.

The anti-Baglin group was formed by Arbitech, a computer company across the street from Baglin’s real estate office. Doug Kari, a company senior vice president, said he and his staff got into a tiff with Baglin over whether their company’s truck traffic was violating zoning standards.

Disclosure statements filed at Laguna Beach City Hall last week show that the company contributed $36,000 to the anti-Baglin group since it was founded in late September.

Another contributor, kicking in $15,000 on Oct. 15, is Ohana Holdings, an investor in the Montage. Ohana representatives did not return calls, and Arbitech officials declined to say why Ohana joined their campaign.

Baglin said Laguna Beach voters won’t want owners of a big hotel shaping the City Council.

“My gut feeling is it’s going to backfire on them,” he said Tuesday. “These people are really trying to damage the electoral process in Laguna Beach. And [the voters] see that.”