Strewn with sparkling lights and shiny metal balls, a 20-foot-tall noble fir rises from the sand at pristine Crystal Cove State Park.
Scores of residents who live in the ramshackle historical cottages that dot the beach and bluff usually put their majestic Christmas tree up during a festive holiday party. But this year it was a low-key affair at this little bit of paradise tucked by the sea. Residents are saving their money to fight an upscale resort.
After years of delays, plans to turn the historical district into a $375-a-night luxury hotel are moving forward. The state has scheduled a public information session Jan. 18. The proposal could go before the state Park and Recreation Commission and the California Coastal Commission in coming months.
While locals have known for years that they would have to move out someday because the land is owned by the state parks department, some would rather turn their beloved area into an affordable, rustic retreat boasting artistic and marine research centers. Rooms would range from $80 to $100 a night.
"It's surely a utopian ideal," said Chris Bradley, a Laguna Beach resident who is helping draw up plans for the retreat. "We think this a place where it can happen."
The developer and the state Department of Parks and Recreation are interested, but there's a catch--the residents must raise $35 million, the cost of refurbishing the cottages to modern standards. The cottages are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning they have to be renovated in a very expensive way. And soon.
"It's an incredible place--one of my favorites along the coast of California. I would love to see it preserved, because there is great history and a sense of place there," said Rusty Areias, director of state parks. "If we don't do something pretty soon, the elements are going to take it. Time and the tide wait for nobody."
Some of the cottages date to the 1920s, and they show their age. Stairways to individual bungalows are crumbling. A wooden footpath along the beach is warped and deteriorating. Windows are boarded up. The cottages have no foundations. Leaking septic tanks are sending raw sewage into the protected waters, which are dolphin birthing grounds.
The Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove, a consortium of cottage dwellers and environmentalists, has been meeting with the developer--Crystal Cove Preservation Partners--and state parks representatives. The three sides are working on an agreement that would specify how much time the alliance has to raise the money and other factors.
Locals wants to set up a nonprofit Crystal Cove Conservancy for fund-raising. Developer Mike Freed said he is willing to work "hand-in-hand" with the conservancy to seek grant money, and Areias said he would use his influence to help pull in funds.
The state is unable to provide any money, Areias said. State funds were used to purchase the 2,791-acre Crystal Cove State Park from the Irvine Co. in 1979 for $32.6 million. Any additional money could mean one less park in Los Angeles or the inability to preserve a critical wildlife corridor, he said.
"It's an uphill battle, but this is a gilded time [economically] in terms of charitable organizations and foundations and conservancies and nonprofits," Areias said. "If you can't do it now, you can't do it."
There is at least one major sticking point in negotiations: Areias and Freed maintain that if the conservancy is given time to raise the money and is unsuccessful, it should support the state's resort plan.
Freed said that aside from room rates, the plans are actually similar. The resort would offer educational opportunities, a full-time marine biologist and better public access. He pointed to other resorts that he and his partners operate, including the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Islands Resort in Fiji, which he said are environmental models.
But plans for a swimming pool, demolishing some cottages and the high room rates are unpalatable to cottage residents.
"There is no way--I repeat, no way--I am ever going to support that resort being at this state park," said Laura Davick, director of the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove.
Davick has special ties to the hidden beaches and striking bluffs at Crystal Cove. Her parents met there as teenagers in 1940. The 41-year-old has lived her entire life in a beachfront cottage, where on warm nights she sleeps on a porch open to the salty ocean breeze and the roar of waves. Her father's ashes are scattered off the rocks just to the south, where she sits when she needs to talk to him.
Regardless of which plan moves forward, the residents' days in cottages that some have called home for generations are numbered. Though families bought their cottages generations ago, they're on month-to-month leases and will probably have to leave in less than two years.
Davick was the one who came up with the idea for the rustic alternative, which may hasten her own eviction and that of her neighbors. She knows other residents talk about her behind her back.
"If anything, I have expedited all of our departures," she said sadly. "It's bittersweet."
But many residents express feelings of reluctant understanding.
"I have three babies, and I want them to grow up here. It's truly sad for me," said Sharon Heintz. "Of course we don't want to go, but . . . if something has to happen, I want [the retreat plan]. It's the best thing."
Cinda Holmes, whose grandmother bought their cottage 51 years ago, said she has mixed feelings: "I'm grateful to have been here for this while."
[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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