Two days after Christmas, as Laura Davick was rushing out the door of her rustic cottage at Crystal Cove State Park for an appointment, the phone rang. The voice at the other end said it was Joan Irvine Smith.
Davick, an activist bent on stopping a $35-million resort in the park, thought one of her friends was pulling a prank. But she decided to play along.
A fortunate move: Indeed, the caller was the Irvine ranch heiress, who wanted to join Davick's fight against transforming the 46 historic cottages into hotel cabins on the beach, which would cost $375 a night.
Four years ago, state park officials signed a 60-year contract with private developer Michael Freed. The contract, quietly signed during former Gov. Pete Wilson's administration, looked like a done deal until recently. But Smith's high-profile opposition, coupled with an energized community enraged over the proposed resort, is making state parks officials reconsider.
The cottages are on the National Register of Historic Places because they are the last 1920s-era beach colony on the Southern California coast.
State parks officials have long said the resort deal is necessary to finance $35 million worth of renovations to the mostly ramshackle cottages, including mandatory replacement of aging septic tanks with a modern sewer system.
Smith, who recalls riding her horse there as a child amid the coastal sage with her grandfather, James Irvine II, said she wants the public land protected for the people of California. Her family sold the land that became Crystal Cove State Park to the state in 1979.
The 67-year-old Smith is the great-granddaughter of Orange County land baron James Irvine, whose original land holdings of avocado, lima bean and alfalfa fields and grazing grounds stretched from the ocean to Cleveland National Forest. She's a former director of the Irvine Co., a noted philanthropist who supports paralysis and atmospheric chemistry research at UC Irvine, and the founder of the Irvine Museum and Friends of the Mission.
Smith's vocal activism since that phone call is only one of the unexpected twists in the Crystal Cove saga that has played out in the past two months.
State parks officials and Freed, in another twist, have worked closely together to market the deal, even though the parks' regulatory commission is responsible legally for independently evaluating and issuing approvals for such projects.
Freed and state parks Director Rusty Areias knew there were mixed feelings about the resort, but thought the public would embrace it if they explained the facts at an informational meeting on Jan. 18 at a Corona del Mar elementary school.
But the overflow crowd of 600--electrified by Smith's presence--dismissed both the developer and park officials, chanting "No resort!" and "Let Joan speak!"
"I don't think we expected such overwhelming opposition to the plan," said Roy Stearns, state parks spokesman.
Smith kept the audience rapt with first-person tales of how her father, seeking to resolve a tax dispute, had tried to deed the land for a federal park in 1931. But the deal was not finalized before his death in 1935, she said.
Afterward, Freed was dejected, saying, "I've never been at a public meeting where they won't let me speak."
Freed has a track record of developing environmentally sensitive, albeit extremely expensive resorts. Sierra Club officials have praised him, and Coastal Living magazine recognized his Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur as an example of responsible coastal development in 1999. They noted that recycled water is used for drought-tolerant landscaping, and that some guest accommodations are built on stilts to protect the roots of redwoods. He has received publicity for running his own home in Big Sur on solar energy.
"We have nothing against Michael Freed," Davick said. "He builds fine products. It just doesn't belong in a state park."
Before the rowdy public meeting began, Freed and Smith happened to meet in the parking lot.
He said he told his newest foe: "It took me eight years to get Post Ranch Inn approved. I'm a very patient man."
Smith said she retorted that she had spent more than three decades in litigation with the Irvine Co.
"I'm really patient too," she told him.
Freed and Smith have more in common than either might want to admit.
Both have made millions from developing pristine California land. And both profess an intense desire to preserve the cottages lining the beach--and the 1920s Southern California beach colony life they represent. But they have starkly different visions of how to accomplish this costly goal.
Weeks before Davick received the surprise phone call from Smith, she'd been talking with Freed and Areias in the living room of her cottage about privately raising the money to transform the cottages into an educational center. Freed agreed to help out and forgo any profit on the project. But the deal fell apart because state officials and Freed wanted her to promise that if the funds could not be raised for that project in a set time period, she would stop fighting the resort.
Davick said that was the breaking point--there was no way she would ever support the resort plan. As the meeting at the Corona del Mar school showed, she was not alone.
There are factions within the resort opposition--some want to see the cottages turned into an arts, education and science center; some want the current tenants to be allowed to stay; and others want the cottages razed. * * *
But a coalition of environmentalists seems to have at least temporarily put aside any differences and have united with a common goal--to stop the resort plan.
They are gaining momentum. State parks officials this week said they are considering buying Freed out of his contract, which could cost up to $2 million.
Freed said he is open to the offer, as long as the cottages aren't torn down. High-level meetings on alternatives to the resort plan took place in Sacramento on Thursday and Friday.
Smith, for one, will continue to squeeze time into her philanthropic and equestrian schedule to weigh in when she thinks it necessary.
"This fight isn't over by a long shot," she said. "This is just the beginning. Until that development contract is terminated and this matter is thrown back into the public process for public review, the fight isn't over."
[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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