Coastal panel is sued over project

Times Staff Writer

A state Coastal Commission decision to classify two Laguna Beach drainage ditches as waterways subject to environmental protection is being challenged in a lawsuit by a Catholic school that wants to build a bigger school on its campus.

The suit, filed last week in Orange County Superior Court, argues that the commission overstepped its bounds when it decided that two ditches that channel water downhill during storms are streams.

Under the ruling, any planning decision Laguna Beach officials make about property use within 100 feet of the ditches could be appealed to the commission. Environmentalists view the commission as being more sympathetic to their concerns than some cities' leaders.

Paul Beard, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing St. Catherine Catholic School, called the move a "power grab."

"The commission is grasping at straws to retain power over decisions of local officials," he said.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange referred questions to Beard. Coastal Commission staff members familiar with the suit could not be reached for comment.

The Coastal Commission enforces the 1972 Coastal Act along the state's 1,100-mile coastline. But once cities create "local coastal plans" -- land use guidelines that balance development in sensitive areas -- projects can be appealed to the commission only in limited cases, such as if they occur within 100 feet of a stream or wetland. Laguna has completed a coastal plan.

St. Catherine, a K-8 school, has proposed demolishing its 25,421-square-foot school on its 6.6-acre parcel along Pacific Coast Highway, and replacing it with a 42,450-square-foot school.

The school is not in an area that the city or commission has classified as subject to appeal. But the Coastal Act allows previously undocumented conditions to be considered when deciding whether a project can be appealed to the commission.

After local residents argued that they should be allowed to appeal the project to the commission on environmental grounds, in August, commission staff visited the site and found the ditches. Commissioners decided in October that if the city approved the project, the decision could be appealed to them.

Lisa Marks, a resident who argued that the commission should be able to review the project, cheered the ruling.

"Those of us who are trying to protect the rare plant communities and so on need these sort of institutions," she said. "The city itself is not protective of its natural resources."

City leaders, however, agree with St. Catherine. "It's a little unfair to the property owners," said City Manager Ken Frank.

Meanwhile, the school project is on hold for an unrelated reason: It was found that the California gnatcatcher, a species of threatened songbird, may live on the property. If it's determined that the species lives there, the proposal will have to be altered.

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