The California Coastal Conservancy voted unanimously Thursday to spend up to $2 million of taxpayer money to buy out a contract that would have turned the mostly ramshackle beach cottages at Crystal Cove State Park into a pricey resort.
Before the vote, longtime resort opponent Jeannette Merrilees of the Sierra Club told conservancy members in a public hearing: "If you vote today to get rid of the contract, you will be endearing yourself to people all over the state . . . because you would be telling them you don't tolerate a contract that gives away a state park."
Afterward, Laura Davick, founder of the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove, which worked to have the resort scrapped, said tearfully, "I'm just so excited right now. It's just so fulfilling."
Under former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, the state Department of Parks and Recreation quietly signed a 1997 deal with developer Michael Freed to turn the land containing 46 historic cottages that dot the state beach into a $35-million resort.
But environmentalists and area residents railed against the plan, saying state officials were in essence selling public land to the highest bidder. Strong opposition forced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' administration to reverse course and seek money to buy out Freed's 60-year contract. The $2 million will be used to reimburse Freed for his costs.
"That's great," Freed said from his Jean-Michel Cousteau Islands Resort in Fiji. "I'm excited for the community. I wish everyone in Laguna Beach and down there the absolute best of luck in moving things forward."
Freed said that he is disappointed he can't build his project but that he would be far more disappointed if the cottages aren't preserved.
The cottages are on the National Register of Historic Places as the last intact example of a 1920s Southern California beach colony. But they are showing their age. Parks officials say they are giving way to the salty sea air and need to be refurbished. State water officials have also ordered the parks system to replace leaking septic tanks with a sewer system.
Residents of the cottages have agreed to leave by July 8.
Activists and area residents testified in support of the buyout during a 2 1/2-hour hearing.
"It's a landmark day," said heiress and philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith, whose family's holdings once included the park. In recent months, Smith joined the fight against the resort, giving foes high-visibility ammunition. "I couldn't be more ecstatic. . . . This is the start of a whole new era for the park."
The only hitch came when conservancy member Paul Morabito wanted to add a condition prohibiting any future commercial development. State parks officials and fellow conservancy members disagreed, saying they still don't know how they will pay for refurbishing the cottages, and they don't know what the future holds. A watered-down version of the condition was approved.
Morabito, the first Orange County member of the conservancy since its inception in 1976, was hailed as the architect of the plan to give state parks officials the $2 million to reimburse Freed.
The fate of the cottages remains unknown. State parks officials will hold public workshops seeking input. The first is tentatively scheduled for April 26.
In other Orange County news, the conservancy voted to give the county $295,500 to improve management and protection of tide pools.
[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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