From Canyon To Cove: Free parkland may not be the best gift

Anybody want some parkland? If you're a public agency or parkland organization, we know where you can get 75 acres or more — for free.

The old Driftwood Properties parcel, hillside land overlooking the ocean and Aliso Canyon, is up for grabs and seemingly in limbo.

The land has been "irrevocably offered" as public open space since December, but so far not one of the agencies that could take possession of it has done so.

The city of Laguna Beach declined the offer of the land; the California Coastal Conservancy has also turned up its nose.

In addition to the 75-acre Driftwood parcel, the owner also agreed to offer the conservancy the right of first refusal for 50 years on an adjacent 80-acre parcel. So we are talking a total of 155 acres of beautiful Laguna Beach land, up for grabs with no takers.

Ten months after the parcel was "dedicated" to the public by a representative of Athens Group, if you visit the property you'll see fenced land and "Private Property: No Trespassing" signs.

"Driftwood Properties offered to deed the property as open space and at no cost to several entities including the city of Laguna Beach, County of Orange, California Coastal Conservancy, Laguna Canyon Foundation, California Coastal Commission and others," Joan Gladstone, a spokeswoman for Athens Group, which represents the property owner, said in an email. "To date, none of these entities have indicated they are willing to accept the land."

According to City Manager John Pietig, the city apparently looked this gift horse in the mouth and didn't like what it saw.

"The city is still in discussions regarding the future of the property but there are drainage and potential geologic issues that need to be addressed and are costly," Pietig said in an email. "Acceptance of the parcel as originally offered would require a substantial expenditure by the city to mitigate these issues."

The city has been burned before on land gifts: a well-used hiking area off of Laguna Canyon Road turned out to contain an old dump site from the 1950s that spewed its contents onto neighbors' yards during December's deluge.

Apparently it was news to the city that the farmer who owned the land would go around town collecting ash from incinerators and toss it into his canyon. The land was given to the city some 20 years later with no mention of the nasty, toxic brew that lay underneath.

In the Driftwood case, this is land with a long and torturous history. In 1962, members of the Esslinger family, one of whom still owns the adjacent Laguna Terrace Mobile Home Park, which itself has quite a past, graded 11 building pads in preparation for a housing development, under a permit granted by the city, according to Gladstone. A coastal staff report says that power lines were also installed.

That's as far as the housing project got and, since 1978, when the California Coastal Commission came into being, the commission and the property owner have been at odds over allegations of unpermitted development, the placement of sandbags, and the removal of vegetation to satisfy the city's requirements for taking out plants that could fuel a wildfire.

Watchdog neighbors and the Sierra Club have made it their business to protect and preserve the site, which, according to Coastal Commission documents, contains four streams, including a "blue line" stream in Hobo Canyon, endangered plant life and a hiking trail.

The preservationists didn't like what they were seeing on this land: endangered plants whacked down, and 5,500 sandbags put in to divert drainage, presumably due to the problem of runoff at the site. So late last year the Coastal Commission issued a cease-and-desist order against the owner, who is represented by Athens Group, developer of the Montage Laguna and would-be developer of the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course (itself another story).

The order demanded a halt to all activity on the Driftwood property, and apparently maneuvered the owner into signing a pledge to hand over the land to the public and grant an easement for the hiking trail. But the land, and whatever liabilities it may include, is still, by all accounts, in the hands of this unnamed owner.

The "remediations," including removal of sandbags and restoration of endangered plants, were accomplished, and so the land sits, waiting for a suitor willing and able to take it on.

And so, even though this deal was inked nine months ago, hikers still can't use the trail; it's off limits to anyone but Coastal Commission staff.

Free land including near-pristine wilderness would seem to be a parks department's dream come true, but these are difficult times for all parks. The state is closing down public parks all over California to save money; at such a time, free parkland probably looks about as attractive as a pig in a poke.

The prospect of wildfires and flooding from the four streams may also be a factor in the public agencies' attitude of "not so fast."

Adding another undertone to the saga, the Driftwood story is being played out as signatures are being collected for a Laguna Beach open space initiative, which would tax Laguna Beach property owners a flat $120 a year to raise $20 million to fund parkland purchases. The tax would require a two-thirds vote to be approved.

It makes one wonder: If the public agencies and parkland organizations aren't interested in acquiring free land, what are the initiative proponents planning to buy with the public's money, should the initiative qualify and be approved?

It turns out that the initiative might be Driftwood's salvation.

Elisabeth Brown, president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., one of the sponsors of the initiative, said that at least some of this parcel would definitely qualify for acquisition under the tax measure because it is within the city limits. The "wilderness" areas would certainly be of interest to the group, but the "degraded" portions, where the housing pads are, might not be on the acquisition list.

"It's a lovely piece of land, with marvelous maritime chaparral. Steep, but that's the terrain around here. A few acres are recovering from old grading, but there's a great diversity of native plants and only a few kinds of non-native weeds," Brown said in an email. And best of all — it's free.

So there might well be hiking in store at Driftwood sometime in the future. The initiative sponsors are apparently waiting for the right moment to submit the signatures and get the measure on the ballot.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469, @cindyfrazier1 or

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