On the eve of the contract signing for an upscale private resort on public parkland at Crystal Cove State Park, some in the Legislature are urging caution and public scrutiny of the plans.
This week, state parks officials plan to sign a 55-year contract with a development group to create a resort on park land with rates of $100 to $400 a night. But some are wondering if a resort even belongs inside the park.
"If you can get a hotel room outside the park, why are you building hotels inside the park?" said Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), chairwoman of the Assembly Budget Committee, who says she has some doubts the project is appropriate.
She notes that improvements are forbidden within state parks "which are attractions in themselves, or which otherwise are available to the public within a reasonable distance outside the park," according to the state Public Resources Code.
But parks officials say the $23-million resort project will make an existing colony of cottages avallable for public use, not create an all-new attraction in the scenic ocean-side park between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. "This is an entrepreneurial project aimed at opening up these facilities to public," said parks spokesman Ken Colombini.
Parks officials are in final negotiations for the resort, with 60 to 90 units, a 120-seat restaurant and up to three swimming pools.
The resort would be.centered in the 12.3-acre Crystal Cove Historic District, a colony of 46 beachfront cottages listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The contract would run for 55 years, making it the lengthiest in the state parks system.
Neither the contract nor the proposal on which it is based have been made public. But parks officials promise the public will be able to study the plans in coming months as they move through the environmental review process and go before the state Park and Recreation Commission and the state Coastal Commission.
The Crystal Cove resort would be a sister resort to Post Ranch Inn, a well-known retreat in Big Sur. It would be developed by a partnership comprised of Post Ranch L.P. (the owner of Post Ranch Inn) Resort Design Group of San Francisco, Investec of Santa Barbara and EKOTEK of Laguna Niguel.
The state Department of Parks and Recreation chose the partnership's proposal over two others in April 1996 but has never made it public. That won't happen until the contract is signed, parks officials say. If the proposal were released now, competitors could gain an advantage if current talks failed, a parks attorney said.
In fact, the proposal has not even been given to state leglislators, a parks spokesman sald. "We requested a copy and were told it wasn't available for distribution," Kristen Aliotti, Ducheny's district director, said last week.
Legislators already authorized the Department of Parks and Recreation to enter into the contract through budget actions in 1995 and 1996, parks officials said.
The 1995-96 budget package included a Crystal Cove resort concession proposal that differs from the current plan on some key points. The project would total $14.8 million, not $23 million, and the contract would run for 30 years, not 55, as now planned. A hostel would be included; that plan has been postponed.
A single paragraph in a 1996 budget trailer bill specifically approved a contract for up to 60 years at Crystal Cove. Material supporting that measure and provided to legislative budget offices describes an investment of over $20 million and does not mention a hostel.
"We have a certain freedom to change the details on how a concession works," Colombini said.
A legislative analyst, however, said the changes in the project would seem significant enough to have required formal notification of the legislature. Even so, the 1996 bill language is so broad that it could grant those changes, said Cameron Keyes, a senior analyst in the legislative analyst's office.
Specifically, that bill states: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the department is authorized to enter into a concession contract for the development, operation, and maintenance of the Crystal Cove Historic District as a public use facility for a period of up to 60 years, upon those terms and conditions that the department determines to be in the best interests of the state."
The Crystal Cove contract is being signed at a time when some in the Legislature are urging a new look at how the financially strapped parks system is funded.
"I'm just wondering if this is an unfortunate over-reaction to the starving of the parks--'Find a developer,'" said Ducheny, whose committee has requested a report about the parks system's needs and how to meet them. "When times got tough, one of the areas that got hit was the parks," she said.
State Assemblyman Michael Machado (D-Linden), chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, which will hold a hearing on parks funding in October, said he is "always concerned when we look at privatization, that we don't close off opportunity to the general public." And state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), chairman of the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, is proposing a 1998 parks bond.
The financially strapped parks system is expected to receive 5% of gross receipts from the Crystal Cove resort. But Colombini said: This isn't just for the sake of making money....This is an entrepreneurial project aimed at opening up these facilities to the public."
Two local legislators support public review of the plans. Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Newport Beach), who has not taken a position on the project, wants the public to be able to scrutinize it in coming months as it is reviewed by state agencies, chief of staff Floreine Kahn said. "We have spoken to the [Parks] Depart ment to ensure that they have that opportunity," Kahn said.
And state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) said in a statement: "Whatever decision is taken regarding Crystal Cove State Park must be made in full view of the public and open to public scrutiny."
[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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