Three months after Gov. Gray Davis took office, planners at the California Department of Parks and Recreation are still moving ahead with a controversial Wilson-era effort to place a private luxury resort on public land inside Crystal Cove State Park.
Many environmentalists hope Davis will swiftly put the brakes on the project to transform the park's colony of beachfront cottages into an upscale tourist enclave with overnight rates of up to $400. Such an exclusive resort, they say, does not belong on public parkland. [The Los Angeles Times says so, too]
Idyllic Crystal Cove, known for its striking cliffs, beaches and tide pools, promises to provide the Davis administration with one of its first major environmental skirmishes.
Many see it as an important barometer for the future of California's 1.6 million-acre state parks system. Critics hope the new administration will reverse former Gov. Pete Wilson's moves toward privatization of some park operations. But years of funding problems have left California's parks financially strapped and sorely in need of repairs--a problem that led the Wilson administration to explore public-private partnerships such as the one planned at Crystal Cove.
So for now, parks officials are continuing to review plans for the posh "Cottages at Crystal Cove," the product of a 60-year contract signed in 1997 between a private partnership and the Wilson administration. The park concession contract is the longest-running in the state.
In a state parks system best known for picnic tables and rustic bathrooms, the resort would be an anomaly, a private operation in tended to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars of lease revenue annually into a cash-starved department. Reflecting the significance of debate over the small park's future, newly appointed Parks Director John "Rusty" Areias visited Crystal Cove last Wednesday, just one week after his swearing-in. He toured the cottage area and met with resort managing partner Michael Freed during a swing through Southern California.
Areias, of Los Banos, a former state Coastal Commission chairman who served six terms in the state Assembly, acknowledges the complexities of the Crystal Cove project.
"This is a program that I as director have inherited, and I'm trying to get my arms around all these issues," he said. "I think the project can be incredible. It has enormous potential," Areias said. "But I also see some conflicts, and I personally have some conflicts as director of parks."
The $23-million Crystal Cove resort would be built in and around the colony of weathered 1920s and 1930s cottages. The cottages are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the region's "last intact examples of vernacular beach architecture."
Most cottages would be renovated and a few demolished to craft a beachfront resort with 75 overnight units, a restaurant and interpretive center. It would be operated by the same developer that created the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.
That developer is leasing only 28 acres of the 2,791-acre park, which the state purchased from the Irvine Co. in 1979 for $32.6 million. But resort critics say that most of the park stretches inland, and that developer Crystal Cove Preservation Partners is leasing prime beachfront property.
The 1997 state lease with the developer was negotiated in secret and made public only after it was signed, infuriating some local residents who said that no deal should have been cut without public meetings and environmental review.
Some critics want the project halted, even if it means paying the partnership for money already invested in the project.
"I just can't believe the Davis administration would dignify this. It's clearly a Wilson deal," said Jeannette Merrilees, coordinator of Save Crystal Cove, a coalition of well-known area environmental groups.
Orange County Democrats, in fact, submitted a resolution at the state Democratic convention in Sacramento last week, opposing any amendment to the park general plan to permit a luxury resort inside the park. The resolution passed.
But both the state and the developer are hard at work designing the resort.
The partnership submitted a draft operating plan March 20, and a development plan is to follow in a few weeks. The required plan amendment could go to the state parks commission within six to 12 months, said Robert Cates, chief of the department's planning, acquisition and environmental design division.
"We'd obviously like to put it on a fast track, if possible," Cates said. Several environmental leaders want public meetings before the plan moves much further along, arguing that public review should have come beforečnot afterčthe contract signing.
"Right now, they're going full bore" with the resort plan, said Jean Watt, president of the non-profit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks. "It looks like we're getting backed into a corner where it's the only plan on the table, and a lot has been put into it already."
Freed, the project's managing partner, said he has not noticed any changes in the state's position since Davis took office.
"We have a signed contract," he said. "I don't know why it would make a difference."
He promises many environmentally minded amenities open to the public, including the interpretive center, an astronomy program and even a video transmitter allowing viewers to watch and talk to underwater divers.
Resort designers have held small meetings with some Orange County environmental leaders, encouraging their involvement.
"Basically, what I've been doing is talking to other people in the community, getting their thoughts on what we can do to change things," Freed said.
Current plans for the resort include only one swimming pool, not the three proposed in l997, Freed said. A fitness center also has been struck from the project.
For years, the cottages have been rented to private tenants, annoying some parkgoers who think they should be opened to the general public. But the colony lacks a sewer system, many cottages are in need of repair, and the parks department would have to spend many millions of dollars to preserve them, parks officials say.
The resort offers an economical alternative, because private developers would pay for renovations, they say.
"The $25-plus-million price tag to renovate the cottages and build the infrastructure at Crystal Cove will be done at no cost to the taxpayers," the draft operating plan states.
The overnight guest parking area, swimming pool and cottages would be off-limits to nonguests, according to the draft. But the 120-seat restaurant, beachfront area, interpretive center, art center, public restrooms and other areas would be open to the public.
Among the plan's admirers is the American Land Conservancy, a private, nonprofit group based in San Francisco that focuses on saving threatened land and water resources. The conservancy would operate the interpretive center at Crystal Cove.
Post Ranch Inn "is probably the most environmentally correct development I've ever seen," conservancy President Harriett Burgess said.
Kristen Coates, conservancy director of public relations, said she wrestled with getting involved with the project.
"I weighed the pros and cons and definitely had my sleepless nights about what this means for Southern California," Coates said.
The conservancy accepted Freed's invitation in part because it would offer a spot "where people can learn a little bit about the effects of development in Orange County and how it affects the marine development " she said.
Others are less willing to accept the notion of a private resort in a public parkčeven if it does offer environmental education.
Murray Rosenthal, state parks chairman for Sierra Club California, said he has told Coates "that she's a fig leaf on a bad development. [The conservancy] is going to be trotted out and cited as a good reason for supporting a bad project."
He questions whether the 1997 contract is even legal.
"I would maintain the contract is an illegal document since it was not subject to all the review that a general plan amendment requires by law," he said.
The project would need to be approved by the California Coastal Commission, and Executive Director Peter Douglas said emphatically he wants a long-promised low-cost hostel built at the park.
More than $2.4 million is now sitting in a commission account, earmarked for a hostel once planned for the cottage area. But renovation costs and the cottage architecture make that scenario unlikely, parks officials say.
So Douglas is taking a different tack. "We are not going to recommend action on the hotel until we have the assurance that the hostel proceeds either prior to or concurrent with" the resort, he said.
[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Los Angeles Times]
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