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Aliso Creek presentation draws crowd

A standing-room-only crowd attended the Wednesday night Athens Group presentation of its plan for the development of its Aliso Creek property.

The presentation included slides that showed construction clustered on the property closest to Pacific Coast Highway, except for the residential lots formerly known as Driftwood Estates; an ocean-to-the-mountains trail connection, long desired by environmental groups; tennis courts and a reconfigured golf course that will remain open to the public, with preference given locals; improved water quality in Aliso Creek and the spill into the ocean at Aliso Beach; restoration of habitat and flood protection.

“We are elated about this wonderful project,” Chamber of Commerce President Dave Sanford said. “It is a great addition to our jewel of an international resort destination.”

Not all of the audience reaction was so positive, but no blood was drawn.

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The slide presentation hewed closely to the concept introduced to the general public almost 18 months ago, Athens Group Vice President John Mansour told a crowd that overflowed from 195-Terrace Room capacity onto the adjacent, heated terrace.

“What you see is about 95% consistent with what you saw in [October] 2005,” Mansour said. “Community meetings were fruitful. A few comments resonated.”

Among the public comments Mansour said were taken into consideration when planning the redevelopment:

  • Stay out of the wilderness;
  • Maintain the nine-hole golf course, with special green fees for locals;
  • Preserve Aliso Canyon;
  • Restore the creek, if possible;
  • Restore habitat, if possible;
  • Complete the trail from the beach to the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park;
  • Over-park the redeveloped site; NS
  • Decrease the number of lots previously approved by the city for Driftwood Estates (renamed by Athens as the Aliso Lots).
  • Athens Group proposes to build a total of 75 guest rooms, some in the inn, some in the spa building and some in guest “cottages.” The plan includes 45 units for private ownership, similar to the town homes at Montage Resort & Spa, also developed by Athens Group. No timeshares and no further hillside residential development was proposed.

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    The project is expected to provide a significant fiscal benefit to the city and the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

    If nothing were done to the site, Mansour said the city would derive about $406,542 in revenue from sales, bed and property taxes in 2013, not taking deterioration into account. The school district would get about $90,000.

    Estimated revenue from the redeveloped site in 2013 is estimated at $2.1 million a year for the city and some $756,000 for the schools.

    “Think what this will mean to the community,” Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. President Martha Lydick said.

    The bottom line was not uppermost in the minds of everyone in the audience.

    “This area is near and dear to South Laguna,” said resident Zolita Scott, who voiced concerns about the extent of the development. “It’s our heart.”

    A wide cross section of the community attended the presentation, as well as a representative of Playa Del Rey-based Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network, which has notified Athens Group of an intent to sue the development company for alleged violations of the federal endangered species and water quality control acts.

    “If the violations can be cured within 60 days, we won’t have to sue,” managing director Marcia Hanscom said.

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    As might be expected, reaction was mixed.

    “I was very pleased to see they are honoring their commitment to the community and the citizens of Laguna Beach,” said Louise Thornton, who was among the golfing groups that previewed the plan before the Wednesday presentation. “The design looks good. It’s very different, but familiar — that creek will still be there.”

    However, Village Laguna President Anne Caen voiced caution.

    “A project is inevitable,” Caen said. “I am concerned that some of the things that happened at Montage may happen again here. It starts out sounding good, but then things are added or expanded beyond the original envelope.”

    Caen said she would like to see mitigation of the polluted Aliso Creek flow onto the beach moved forward on the construction calendar.

    Athens Group is a supporter of the county’s plan for the creek’s Stabilization, Utility Protection and Environmental Restoration, dubbed the SUPER Project. The $45 million project is on hold, pending passage of funding by the federal government.

    “The greatest thing you could do for the community is to develop a system that makes the water that flows to the beach clean so that it doesn’t pollute the ocean,” Stewart Tinsman said.

    Mansour said Athens Group had inherited the creek problems when it bought the property and favors the SUPER Project for its benefits to the development and to the environment.

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    “I think [Mansour] did a smooth, polished presentation,” said former Laguna Beach Mayor Ann Christoph, a South Laguna business owner and resident.

    “I do think the residential units are too big to be called cottages.

    “The residential component is a new element that hasn’t been on the property before and our community is concerned that it remains a tranquil escape from the frenetic activity in the rest of the city.

    “I also am concerned about the future of the eucalyptus grove at the original YWCA Camp Elizabeth Dolph.”

    Athens Group is proposing to move the camp site from its historic location to a parcel near the Aliso lots, with access via a trail to the nearby South Coast Water District tank.

    While renderings were shown for the proposed inn, rental and residential units near the highway, the absence of architectural plans for the Aliso lots left Driftwood neighborhood residents in a quandary.

    “The real question asked by the Driftwood neighborhood was what is the project going to look like at the end of the day and how long will it take to get to the end of the day,” Mansour said.

    That depends on what architects design for the individual lots and what the city will approve. Athens Group will not develop the lots.

    Other questions fielded by Mansour:

  • Bonnie Hano asked if the some of the more than 500 proposed parking spaces could be used for Montage employees.
  • Response: “Don’t know.”

    Depending on occupancy and facility use, the parking surplus will range from 93 to 220 spaces.

  • Arnold Hano asked how long the public would be subjected to traffic problems resulting from grading and construction.
  • Response: Probably about the same as it took for Montage, 26 months.

    The so-called Aliso Creek Area Redevelopment plan, with proposed zoning changes, is ready to be submitted to the city and the county.

    Former City Planner Kathy Lottes was selected by the City Council to manage the project as a consultant to the city, although paid by Athens Group.

    “We are ready to start reviewing it,” said Harry Huggins, a planner in the county’s Harbors, Beaches and Parks department, who will participate in the review.

    Athens Group estimates the project will take 24-36 months to complete the city’s application and approval process.

    Then the project goes to the Coastal Commission.

    To see selected plan graphics and data, visit the website at www.alisocreekinnupdate.com. Questions may be posted and will be answered.


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