The California Coastal Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a 635-home project above pristine Crystal Cove State Park, the Irvine Co.'s last major coastal development.
After more than five hours of technical presentations, emotional testimony and surprisingly little debate, the commissioners added a laundry list of water quality conditions before voting 10-0 to allow the 980-acre project between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach to proceed.
Emotions ran the gamut on the long-contested project.
"Their unanimous approval, which did come as a surprise, reflects the commission's confidence in the plan," said Gary Hunt, executive vice president of the Irvine Co. "I was very pleased."
But California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, a nonvoting commissioner who attended Thursday, said, "There's an undertone of sadness, especially among those of us from Southern California, simply because of the fact that we're looking at this stretch of coast that is now becoming developed except for a bit of park there.... It's hard not to feel sadness."
Garry Brown of Orange County CoastKeeper said, "It's mixed emotions. We're still going to see [more than] 600 homes up there. At least there's a lot more coastal protection. It's a much better project than it was a year ago."
The project was halted last October after regulators with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service questioned its potential effect on wildlife and water quality. They noted urban runoff from the homes would drain across state park beaches, into ocean recognized as a dolphin-birthing ground and "area of special biological significance." The state commission decided to further scrutinize the project.
The project, debated Thursday at the commission meeting at the Waterfront Hilton in Huntington Beach, is part of a 2,600-home development. Orange County planners initially approved the project in 1998.
In the last 10 months, the Irvine Co. has drastically altered the original plans.
The conclusion came after months of conflict. Environmental organizations, including the Orange County CoastKeeper, the League for Coastal Protection and the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove, won key concessions from the Newport Beach-based developer, including treatment of runoff from not only the new development, but also previously approved residential tracts near the park.
Commissioners also mandated monitoring for any illegal flows, improved ocean and creek testing, and third-party monitoring of run off measures during construction.
Runoff Safeguards Win Cautious Praise
The company's plans for the runoff changed considerably. Originally, runoff would have flowed down Los Trancos and Muddy Canyon creeks, across the state beach and into the ocean. Then the developer proposed a water quality package that included diverting summer flows into a sewer system, placing filters in catch basins, using street-cleaning vacuum machines, and installing detention basins to catch storm flows. "It's been a year in the making and we're very pleased with the way the project has been conditioned," said Susan Jordan, board member with the League for Coastal Protection.
But Jordan and others cautioned that they will scrutinize the development to make sure the promises are carried out.
Brown of CoastKeeper said he was still concerned that the cost of maintenance and upkeep of structural improvements, such as filters in storm drains, will be transferred to a homeowners association once the developer sells the homes.
"Ten to 15 years from now, the homeowners association is going to be more concerned with the patio furniture at the swimming pool than their control of the [structural fixes] or even caring what they are," Brown said.
CoastKeeper attorney Kimberly Lewand said that while she was happy with improvements, she remained concerned about the runoff from the massive development and she wasn't convinced that it would all be treated, as the developer claimed.
An EPA official testified that concerns remain about the project, because it includes filling more than six miles of natural drainage channels. Commissioners said they had little choice because the filling is allowed in the area's state-certified local coastal plan.
"That's just a tragedy we have to live with," said Commissioner Christina L. Desser.
Many local residents who testified during the hearing considered the entire development a tragedy. Cinda Combs has lived in a cottage on the beach since World War II. Back then, whenever she or her brother got a cut, she said, her father would tell her to go in the ocean water to clean it and make it heal faster.
Nowadays, said Combs, crying as she spoke, there are signs warning people to avoid the water near her cottage because it poses a health hazard.
"I'm glad my father didn't have to see that," she said, adding that she was sure the project would further pollute the waters.
Environmentalists who worked hard for the changes said the Inrvine Co.'s acquiescence on the runoff issues raises the bar substantially for all new development across the state.
The Irvine Co. is also dedicating 290 acres of open space in exchange for the approval. "A good environment is not just good for quality of life," company vice president Hunt said. "It's good for business."
[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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