The meaning of "trouble in paradise" became clear last month to state parks officials when they arrived to discuss the future of idyllic Crystal Cove. Wisely, they have backed off a development plan for the historic cottages, but there still are many questions to resolve. Getting satisfactory resolution will require various local interest groups to work together after rising in revolt against the state proposal.
The state had known since 1997 that the former Wilson administration's quiet deal to permit a developer to rehabilitate 46 cottages into hotel cabins that would rent for $375 per night was controversial. At a public informational meeting in Corona del Mar on Jan. 18, a raucous crowd would have none of the state proposal and dispensed with courtesies in making plain the depth of community opposition.
The state retreated, saying it intends to scuttle the plan entirely. Developer Michael Freed is known for environmentally friendly projects at Big Sur and elsewhere. But the idea of developing a public park when so much of the coastline already has given way to development cut deeply into the sensibility of an environmentally conscious coastal region. Rusty Areias, director of California State Parks, is a former chair of the Coastal Commission and tried to put the best face on the proposal in a way that would ensure access to the public, along with an environmentally friendly rehab of the cottages. This turned out to be a battle that was lost from the day it was announced.
The state never should have agreed to this arrangement, and certainly not moved ahead without ample public discussion. It was unconscionable for the prior administration to conclude such a deal in secret, negotiating a 60-year lease to operate a resort before the public got wind of any of it.
The passion of the Orange County environmental community's response is a reflection of years of growing awareness of the fragility of the shoreline, and the threat of development to coastal regions near Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. That opposition needed only a figure to rally around, and found a worthy one in the Irvine ranch heiress Joan Irvine Smith. She galvanized the opposition and pointed the way to alternatives.
Merely saying no to the proposal was the easy part. The challenge now will be to save the cottages and ensure public access in a way that is respectful of the pristine surroundings. This probably will have to include a costly buyout of the developer, which is the unfortunate price for resolving the contract. The figure of $1 million to $2 million already spent that is being floated invites close scrutiny. Also, Brenda Stouffer, of the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove, has said she can envision working with Freed on an alternative, so the possibility of a continuing relationship for him at Crystal Cove will be a factor in any resolution.
The parties opposed to the state plan have different ideas of what should come next. Some want nothing done. Others favor the development of an educational, environmental and artistic center. The latter idea would preserve the cottages as designated historic places and bring people to them to learn about the coast and the environment. It will take money but could be a worthy rallying point if it can gather support.
Smith can be an important ally in designing the plan, because she brings to the discussion the perspective of the land's history and her family's hopes for preserving some of what remains for future generations.
The problem will be to agree on a plan and come up with the financial resources to carry it out. The state is agreeable to a change of course, although there still are things to be resolved about its role. Preserving the park from development is an achievement. It now requires collaborative efforts to secure the future of precious waterfront open space.
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