May 30, 2008
City of Laguna Beach
Attn: Kathy Lottes, Project Manager
RE: Notice of Preparation of Environmental Impact Report for the Aliso Creek Area Redevelopment Plan
In a letter to the City Council dated August 4, 2007, we expressed our concerns about the nature and the scale of the development proposed by the Athens Group for the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course in the hope that modification of the plan might be possible before the application was deemed complete. Now that the environmental review process has begun, our concerns have only deepened.
We continue to believe that the goal of planning efforts should be to preserve the serenity and beauty of the canyon and make it accessible to all in a way that does not compromise it. As we said in our letter, the canyon is zoned for hotel, recreation, and open space for a reason, and the beauty and drama of its landscape are best enjoyed by visitors leaving light footprints. Rather than review the contents of that letter here, we attach a copy that we hope will be of use to the EIR consultants in identifying the impacts of the development as we perceive them. The comments that follow are based on study of the most recent project description and the applicant’s technical reports.
The introduction of new uses to the canyon and the great increase in activity that this will mean are bound to cause significant impacts to the aesthetics of the place. People respond to the peace and quiet there, and residents who live along the hillsides above the canyon love the darkness and silence at night. Open Space Element Policy 7A requires that we “preserve to the maximum extent feasible the quality of public views from the hillsides and along the City’s shoreline.” There is no indication in the applicant’s documents that views of the proposed development from the surrounding hillsides have been assessed and protected. Since the aesthetic features of the canyon are central to its importance, the study of environmental impacts should document those features and explore alternatives that will leave them intact or improved.
A more appropriate alternative would greatly reduce the scale of the development and confine it to the currently developed area.
Light, noise, and air pollution. Open Space/Conservation Element Policy 8J(2) requires that new development adjacent to areas designated as environmentally sensitive be designed and sited to prevent impacts that would significantly degrade such areas. Introducing residences to the canyon will bring light, noise, and exhaust from cars that will disturb the night for the animals that live there and can be expected to have lasting effects on them.
Grading. Open Space/Conservation Element Policy 14F requires grading projects to minimize earth-moving operations and encourage preservation of the natural topography.
nstead, the Athens Group proposal involves massive grading, including the construction of a golf facility on a ridge, the creation of artificial landforms both in the canyon and on the Hobo-Aliso Ridge, and the import of dirt from one to supply the other.
The practice green proposed for the ridge at the end of the canyon also violates Open Space/Conservation Element Policy 13B, which requires that development proposals incorporate protection of the natural profile of ridgelines as visual resources.
The manufactured landform in the Hobo-Aliso Ridge area will violate the grading ordinance by exceeding 25 feet in height and having a slope steeper than the permitted 2:1.
Filling the lower part of the canyon to a depth of some 30 feet is certainly neither “minimal” grading nor preservation of the natural topography. It also appears likely to change the shape of the floodplain, and it might be expected that this would have some effect on flooding upstream or downstream of the property. Besides this, considering the canyon’s historical propensity for flooding, we question whether the imported fill mounded up in front of the development will be secure in a severe flood condition.
Rather than altering the landscape to protect the proposed structures, an alternative should be considered that reduces the amount of development and confines it to the area of the property that is least likely to be flooded.
The creek. Open Space/Conservation Element Policy 9A calls for promotion and restoration of Laguna’s natural drainage channels, and Policy 9B prohibits substantial alteration of streams “except as necessary to protect existing structures in the proven interest of public safety.” Policy 9U calls on us to “restore and retain Aliso Creek in a natural state and protect the creek from infringement of new development.” The primary focus of Orange County’s Aliso Creek Corridor Specific Plan, adopted in 1977, was to discourage further urbanization (channelization) of the creek and respect the natural characteristics of the floodplain.
The proposed development channelizes a natural watercourse through the use of synthetic materials to line the bottom of the creek bed, construction of faux-concrete/rock riffles, and reinforcement of steep slopes with concrete walls. A 5-by-10-foot channel will be dug in the creek bottom, and the entire creek will be regraded and engineered to rationalize the expansion of the structural footprint on the site. The purpose of the concrete reinforcements in the creek is to allow construction in the floodplain and to get the water off the property as fast as possible. The applicant’s technical report frankly states that without the channelization “significant loss of property” can be expected.
Open Space/Conservation Element Policy 10A indicates that projects should avoid flood-prone lands. The proposed project fills the floodplain with earth and tall structures and describes this as “removing habitable structures from the floodplain.”
Open Space/Conservation Element Policy 9C requires a minimum setback of 25 feet from the top of the stream bank, but the applicant proposes a setback of only 17 feet for a 260-linear-foot stretch and purports to fulfill the requirement by averaging the setback widths.
Safety Element Policy 5G calls for consideration of the effects on beach sand replenishment of improvements to natural drainage channels. The applicant’s reports do not seem to address this requirement.
Topic 4 of the Open Space/Conservation Element calls for minimizing impervious surfaces (4B), minimizing the volume and velocity of runoff (4C), minimizing the introduction of pollutants into coastal waters (4D), and preserving the functions of natural drainage systems (4E). This section states: “The most natural approach to water quality management is to minimize impervious surfaces and filter and infiltrate runoff by allowing runoff to flow slowly over permeable vegetated surfaces. By preserving and restoring the natural hydrological cycle, filtration and infiltration can reduce the volume/peak rate, velocity and pollutant loads of urban runoff.” The proposed project increases the proportion of impervious surfaces (from 16% to 28%), increases the velocity of runoff through channelization, and does little of significance to reduce the introduction of pollutants into coastal waters.
Alternatives should be analyzed that minimize structural alterations to the creek and restore it as nearly as possible to its pre-development condition. Such alternatives might first consider the obvious: pulling the development footprint away from the creek and out of the flood zone. Unnatural flows of dry-season urban runoff could be filtered and reused by the development and golf course. The creation of a series of large pools rather than the 25-foot-wide strips of vegetation that the project proposes would reduce velocity and more thoroughly filter the polluted water, thereby reducing pollutants.
The history of the site and the area, including the Native American occupation and that of the homesteaders (Thurstons, Goffs, and Dolphs), warrants extensive research and evaluation. The Thurston homestead site is of great importance because this was the first American settlement in the Laguna Beach area—in fact, the birthplace of Laguna Beach—and because Joe and Marie Harding Thurston were prominent Laguna Beach community leaders long after Joe moved from the farm his father had established in Aliso Canyon. The site of the former Girl Scout camp is also significant because its grove of eucalyptus trees was planted by the homesteaders to establish their claim to the land, because it was donated to the Girl Scouts by the Dolph sisters, who were prominent both in Laguna Beach and Dana Point, and because it was visited by Lady Olave Baden-Powell, one of the founders of the Girl Guides in Britain (see attached newspaper article).
The proposed Thurston House replica will be newly built in a different place from the original, and the plan seems to be to leave the interior a two-story volume and use the room for private dinners for hotel guests. While some recognition of the history of the canyon on the site would indeed be appropriate, this proposal distorts and demeans that history and violates the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for preservation, restoration, and reconstruction of historic properties.
The former camp site, deeded by Blanche and Florence Dolph to the Girl Scouts Council of Laguna Beach, Inc., in August 1935 and named the Elizabeth Dolph Girl Scout Camp of Laguna Beach in honor of their mother, was used for overnight and day camping into the early 1970s. National Girl Scout politics forced the local council to deed the property in the early 1960s to the Joe Thurston Foundation with the stipulation that it be maintained for the benefit of the youth of Laguna Beach and that camping for girls be given priority. Five years later the foundation conveyed the property to the YMCA under similar conditions, and forty years after that the YMCA sold it to the present owners. Under the redevelopment plan, part of the old camp site will be occupied by a comfort station, and most of its eucalyptus trees will be removed.
The project proposes to destroy an existing historic site (Camp Elizabeth Dolph) and place a replica of a lost historic building in the wrong location. Alternatives should be presented that would preserve the camp site and its original use and offer an appropriate interpretive program regarding the Thurston homestead that omits the wrongly sited replica.
The redevelopment proposal will greatly intensify the use of an area on the urban-wildland interface and create new demands on the City’s fire-safety personnel.
The placement of residences far up the canyon and immediately adjacent to wildlife habitat will put both residents and wildlife at risk.
Because the development proposed is too extensive to allow fuel modification to be confined to the property as City policy requires, a 6-foot-high fire wall behind the structures is planned. Those of us who remember the 1993 Laguna Canyon fire will question the adequacy of a 6-foot wall to protect either people or animals. Similarly, depending on water-cannon irrigation seems to place too much reliance on technology (availability of water, power, and trained personnel) when concerns for safety would call for more appropriate placement of structures instead.
Elsewhere in Laguna, efforts have been made since the fire to provide additional access possibilities for canyons that have only one, but here intense development of a box canyon is justified in terms of the notion of “shelter in place.” Lagunans may ask whether our fire department is equipped to provide this kind of protection to the people who would be in harm’s way in Aliso Canyon.
Safety Element Policy 1L limits residential development when a single means of ingress and egress is proposed and requires two means of access under certain circumstances. Policy 1M limits a single means of ingress and egress to 750 feet in length. This proposal creates 39 new residential units on a single access road far longer than this. The applicant proposes alternative access through the wilderness park, but it hasn’t been determined whether the AWMA road meets the criteria for such use. Public roads through Aliso Canyon have been deleted from the county’s master plan, and the land inland of the property is public wilderness park. The AWMA road is used solely for maintenance and access to the sewage treatment plant. Reliance for access on private development should not be permitted. In any case, it is miles to the nearest through street, and any wildfire would probably be coming from that direction.
The Fire Department has raised questions about the absence of a traffic signal at the Coast Highway entrance, but the applicant’s traffic study indicates that no new signal can be justified.
An alternative proposal that eliminates the residential development and pulls the hotel development back from the wildland edges should be considered.
Aliso Canyon has been the subject of multiple planning efforts over time (among them the county’s 1977 Aliso Creek Corridor Specific Plan, the South Laguna Specific Plan, and the City’s land-use and zoning classifications), and these plans have been unanimous in stipulating recreational and open-space uses for the property in question. The project should be evaluated in terms of its conformity with these plans.
Design and zoning standards. The Athens Group’s proposal depends upon rezoning of the property to allow residential uses and proposes its own height limits for structures. Land Use Element Policy 10C reads “Discourage the approval of subdivision requests that do not conform to design and zoning standards,” and this is certainly such a request.
Residential uses are entirely inappropriate for this sensitive canyon and can be expected to introduce light, noise, traffic and air pollution, and the intrusion of domestic animals to the high-value wildlife habitat that is just across the road. Permanent housing within the former Ben Brown’s golf course and motel property is not part of the county’s Aliso Creek Corridor Specific Plan, which was designed to ensure maximum public recreational enjoyment of the 19.5-mile-long Aliso Creek corridor.
The maximum height for buildings anywhere in the city is 36 feet, and the envelopes applied to residential and commercial construction, which vary with the topography and the zone, rarely reach this limit. The proposed hotel will be 51 feet tall and sit within a manufactured slope on top of two levels of parking. The condominiums will be 30 feet tall.
Land Use Element Policy 11A encourages building design that minimizes the scale, bulk, and obtrusiveness of development and requires compatibility in scale with the surroundings. Policy 12B requires building design that is compatible with and integrated with natural topographic features. All of the buildings proposed are large, and the style chosen for them emphasizes their bulk because it is traditionally associated with much smaller structures. The hotel will rise five stories (two of them underground as the hillside is rebuilt) from the north bank of the creek, and the guest-room “cottages”—one of about 12,000 and the other of about 6,000 square feet—will be perched on a shelf on the south bank, at the foot of a steep cliff that has been the site of landslides in the past. (The placement of these cottages here will require that the stream bank below them be covered with faux-rock concrete and that a 6-foot fire wall be built between them and the wildland.) The condominiums, in multi-unit buildings ranging from about 12,000 to 40,000 square feet, will be set in a row along their access road at the foot of a slope covered with native vegetation and so close to the stream that the required setback from the stream bank cannot be observed. Creating access to these residences will violate
Transportation, Circulation, and Growth Management Element Policy 2M, which calls on us to avoid extending roads and utilities to identified Environmentally Sensitive Areas and unincorporated county lands.
Trees. Land Use Element Policy 11-G requires the preservation of existing trees to the maximum extent possible in conjunction with development approvals. Topic 4 of the Landscape and Scenic Highways Resource Document describes trees as “an important resource in Laguna Beach for a variety of reasons. Trees of all kinds . . . contribute to the scenic beauty of the City. They protect the soil from erosion, provide cooling shade, and help to cleanse the air of pollutants. Trees also represent an aspect of Laguna’s heritage—some of the oldest trees (oaks and sycamores) may predate homesteading and the formation of the City.” The City has a formal program for identifying and protecting Heritage Trees.
The trees in Aliso Canyon are important as nesting places and food sources for birds, and they are essential to the aesthetics of the canyon and reminders of its historic character. The original Thurston homestead was established with the planting of eucalyptus trees, and there were many trees on the property in the 1930s (see attached photo).
The Athens Group’s tree survey identifies 836 trees on the site and considers 221 as potentially desirable and 86 of these suitable for boxing and later use. Which of these 86 will actually be part of the landscaping plan will be decided as part of the design review of the project.
Saving less than 10% of the trees on the site does not sound like “preservation.” An alternative should be pursued that dramatically reduces the grading and alteration of the landscape so that the trees can remain.
It appears that the development in Aliso Canyon will be on land of great paleontological sensitivity. The Topanga Formation consists of sediments washed from the shore to the ocean and therefore contains a mix of terrestrial and marine fossils. This
mixing of terrestrial and marine fossils from the same geologic time period allows scientists a rare opportunity to correlate life forms coexisting in the Miocene environment. According to the Open Space/Conservation Element of the General Plan, “the development of much of the City has already resulted in the covering or destruction of potentially significant archeological/paleontological resources. As a result, the remaining, undeveloped portions of Laguna Beach have even greater value as possible prehistoric sites. Consequently, consideration for their preservation is particularly important.” City policies in the Open Space/Conservation Element relevant to potential development on this “very-high-sensitivity geologic unit” include “Promote the conservation of land having archeological and/or paleontological importance for its value to scientific research and to better understand the cultural history of Laguna Beach and environs” (12A) and “Preserve cultural/scientific sites, including geologically unique formations having archeological significance” (12B).
Population and Housing
While the initial environmental study identifies impacts on population and housing as potentially significant, the topic is not included in the NOP, and the applicant’s documents do not address it. Adding residences to the site will add residents, and the provision of access and utilities far up the canyon will open the possibility for intensification of this use. Adding retail and other uses to the hotel operation will create new jobs and perhaps new residents as well. These impacts should be evaluated in relation to the growth-management objectives contained in the Traffic, Circulation, and Growth-Management, the Land Use, and the Open Space/Conservation Element of the City’s General Plan.
Among the City’s stated objectives for the redevelopment plan is the provision of public open space/recreation, but the proposal offers limited and compromised public recreational opportunities.
The golf course. The golf course as it exists is enjoyed by local golfers as much for the beauty and peacefulness of its setting as for its technical features. Placing residences on one of its fairways will detract from its appeal to these users. While the Athens Group asserts that its redesigned golf course will be better, safer, and provide better views of the canyon, this assertion is subjective and debatable. The only given is that an already tight course will be reduced in size from 43.7 to 40.9 acres, a decrease of 2.8 acres. Typically, shrinking a golf course puts the fairways closer together, resulting in reduced safety. In addition, many mature trees that were planted in the 1960s to separate the adjacent fairways (and provide safety from errant balls) will be removed to accommodate the proposed layout.
The course yardage will be reduced by 10% (over 200 yards). The number of holes where it is possible to use a wood from the tee will drop from 7 (out of 9) today to 4, and the fifth, sixth, and seventh holes will all be under 150 yards. Most golf courses are designed to have varying yardages for consecutive holes. With the proposed redesign the whole experience will seem more like “pitch and putt” than a full-length golf course.
The #7 fairway view from the current #7 tee, looking downstream (with the canyon wall on the right and the creek on the left) is arguably one of the most precious and beautiful views in the golf course portion of the canyon. The fairway is open and spacious, and the view is unobstructed by any man-made structures. The reconfigured layout will eliminate the #7 fairway and replace it with condominiums. Much of the first, eighth, and ninth holes will also be filled with buildings. To describe this change as providing “better views of the canyon” is a statement that few could endorse.
The golf course as redesigned will be neither safer nor better and will reduce the quality of canyon views as well as the experience of serenity that many golfers value. At the same time, while increasing the number of hotel guests the applicant plans to reduce the number of tee times by one-third, causing local golfers to compete with guests for fewer golfing opportunities.
An alternative that eliminates the residential component of the project would allow the preservation of the golf course as a recreational resource long enjoyed by local golfers.
The mountains-to-the-sea trail. Envisioned by the county’s Aliso Creek Corridor Specific Plan and long understood as a prerequisite for any new development of Aliso Canyon, a trail connection through the property to Aliso and Woods Canyon Wilderness Park is proposed. Unfortunately, for much of its length it follows the road behind the condominiums and will have a view of garages and cars rather than the canyon.
An alternative that eliminates the residences would avoid squeezing the golf course, make room for a camp site at the end of the canyon, and open up public views from the trail.
The applicant’s parking plan shows 507 parking spaces under the hotel, where City code would require 550. Adding to this the 78 spaces required by the residential development, we get a measure of the intensity of the uses proposed for this sensitive canyon. Whether the parking is adequate to the development’s needs is only one question. Another is whether it makes sense to permit uses that generate the need to bring in this many cars.
The applicant estimates a 62% increase in the number of trips in and out of the canyon once development is complete. There is only one road to accommodate this additional traffic, and at the intersection only right turns are permitted. The traffic report predicts no significant increase in traffic on the Coast Highway and no justification for a signal at the intersection. As users of the Coast Highway, many of us find it hard to believe that we won’t notice a significant difference when the hotel, with its meeting rooms, is in full swing.
A reduction in the intensity of uses to reduce car traffic to a figure more appropriate to the sensitivity of the site and its physical constraints would be a step in the right direction.
Postscript: The Project’s Carbon Footprint
Any development undertaken today must take into account its contribution to global warming. Our General Plan does not yet address this issue, but the City has signed onto the Kyoto Protocol and has appointed a committee to advise it on ways to do this. The NOP doesn’t include this as a topic for consideration, but we understand that City staff will be looking for some treatment of it in the EIR.
Prompted by staff, the applicant has applied for consideration for LEED certification. However, assessment of the development’s impact must also include consideration of the effects on the planet of the complete alteration of the landscape that is envisioned here—among other things, the energy used by the earth-movers and the dump trucks and the energy used to produce the materials for channelizing the creek and raising the hotel rooms out of the natural floodplain.
These impacts can be expected to be considerable, and an alternative that would reduce them substantially ought to be considered.
We look forward to seeing the results of the consultants’ studies and hope that they will lead to the proposal of alternative projects that would avoid them.