Big Bend project approved

A proposal to turn city property at Big Bend into a trail head and wildlife corridor will next go before the Planning Commission.

The Laguna Canyon Foundation will submit detailed design plans and an environmental analysis now that the City Council has approved the project.

The project will be funded by a $100,000 grant from Measure M money for environmental mitigation.

Restoration and maintenance will be provided by volunteers, said foundation Executive Director Max Borella.

"We will involve the community," Borella said. "We have a workforce of 350 volunteers and we will use them. We will also approach the schools. This is a project to really bring the whole community together — to take land that is highly degraded and restore it."

Non-native vegetation will be replaced with native riparian, coastal sage scrub and oak woodland species, and picnic tables will be installed.

The grant requires a conservation easement or deed restriction over the property.

Parking could be provided, but getting California Department of Transportation approval for access could be challenging, as could expensive additions to the project that would not be covered by the grant, said foundation President Derek Ostensen.

In a separate vote, the council decided what to do with three cottages that were moved to the Big Bend site to make way for the Susi Q senior center and community center at 380 Third St.

Councilman Kelly Boyd, who voted against the relocation four years ago, said it is time to demolish the deteriorated cottages.

However, developer Ken Fischbeck is working on incorporating two of the cottages into a project his company is preparing for the Wendt property on Arch Street.

The council voted to divide into the Arch Street property into three parcels, with the stipulation that nothing be done to diminish the Heritage Committee E-rating on the Wendt home. Iseman recused herself because she owns property within 500 feet of the Wendt property

The cottages may be enlarged up to 1,500 square feet. Fischbeck has two years to move the cottages to the Arch Street site.

Condominiums were originally proposed for two of the parcels.

The council voted 4 to 1, with Boyd opposed, to allow two cottages to stand for two more years — the outer limit of time the council was willing to allow Fischbeck to get his project approved.

If the cottages have not been removed by the deadline, the foundation's original proposal to demolish them will be revived.

The third cottage will not be preserved.

"Call the one you tear down Kelly's Cottage," Boyd said. "I'll be there for demolition day."

An alternative proposal by city staff to "white hole" a portion of the site for some future use by the city was denied.

"I remember seeing deer and birds on the property and that's what we want," Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson said. "Nothing else."

Laguna Greenbelt Inc. member Ron Chilcote submitted a letter to the council from Greenbelt President Elisabeth Brown, opposing the proposal to set land aside for an undetermined future use.

"She said this is an opportunity to enhance a wildlife crossing," Chilcote said. "We really oppose the alterative because it interferes with what we have there."

Ostensen said the site has numerous environmental pluses, not the least of which is linking the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and the Aliso & Wood Canyons Park on either side of Laguna Canyon Road.

"There are incredible views from 300-foot high cliffs that have been painted by plein air artists," Ostensen said. "A bobcat was recently killed on the road [there], a tragedy, but it proves that it is being used as a corridor by wildlife."

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