The Ranch

In January the Coastal Commission allowed Mark Christy to proceed with his popular Ranch project in spite of some dissatisfaction with the fast-tracking by the city that bypassed some habitat and historical issues a project like this would normally require. A letter from Village Laguna expressed appreciation for this project, which would make it possible for the public “to experience the secluded scenic Aliso Canyon in a low-key, unpretentious setting intended to convey the essence of Laguna Beach history and way of life.” Fortunately the Commission did agree with other proponents that the project’s plans should include a trail linking the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park to the coast. This trail has been envisioned by Orange County for 40 years and is included in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Specific Plan. The Coastal Commission directed the developers to provide $250,000 toward the cost of a consultant to develop plans for such a trail.

Village Laguna’s letter to the Coastal Commission:

Thank you for your careful review of the proposed project in relation to the implementation of Laguna Beach’s LCP.

Village Laguna is a 45-year-old Laguna organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the village character of Laguna Beach. We support granting the permit  recommended by staff but request revisions to some of the conditions of approval and further consideration of some unresolved aspects of the project.

We appreciate the approach the applicant is taking to upgrade and refurbish the former Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course/Ben Brown’s, now known as ‘The Ranch.’  The project improves existing facilities in a rural/rustic manner in keeping with the character of the canyon and Laguna Beach. It improves the function of the hotel, restaurant and meeting rooms, and enhances their potential to be used and enjoyed by the community and visitors. It preserves and enhances the golf course as it has been for decades, a highly valued low-cost public course. It makes it possible for the public to experience the secluded scenic Aliso Canyon in a low-key, non-pretentious setting intended to convey the essence of Laguna Beach history and way of life.

There are no condominiums, no high-rise buildings, none of the highly impactful features that were so objectionable in previous proposals.

The Coastal Commission appeal presents the opportunity for comprehensive review of many issues important to implementing the project goals in the most sensitive and beneficial manner. Please consider the following comments in resolving remaining issues.

CONDITIONS OF APPROVAL   [note: gaps in numbering indicate no issue]

1. Mitigation for Impacts on Affordable/Lower Cost Accommodations

Staff’s option B requires the applicant to fund and operate the shuttle and extend the service to Coast Highway or Aliso Beach, as well as dedicating areas for trail easement, and provide group camping at the Scout Camp.

We support the alternatives proposed to provide for a future trail and to transport hikers and bicyclists via a shuttle in the meantime. We want to emphasize the importance of the connecting trail and urge the Commission to assure through the conditions that the trail will become a reality within a reasonable time frame.

We suggest that providing the shuttle to Coast Highway or all the way to Aliso Beach is unnecessary and less desirable for the public than having the public resume their trail experience at the parking lot at the Ranch. They have come to experience Aliso Canyon, and the most dramatic and beautiful views of the canyon are available in the vicinity of the Ranch complex/parking lot. Walking or biking from there to the beach they will experience the canyon in a serene environment rather than being confined inside a vehicle. They can easily traverse the road, cross Aliso bridge and go through the tunnel to the beach. Bikers will have the option to ride north on Coast Highway or to walk their bikes on the bridge to the tunnel.

If people were transported all the way to the beach in a shuttle, the ride would be circuitous and time consuming. When exiting Country Club Drive the shuttle would have to turn right, travel north .2 miles, make a U-turn at the Montage or Albertsons, go south .25 miles, then drop off at the beach. For the return trip the shuttle would have to turn right out of the beach parking lot, go south up to West Street .5 miles on Coast Hwy., and make a U-turn again, then travel the return trip .5 miles north to turn into Country Club road and proceed to the Ranch.

We think that after members of the public make this trip once they would ask to be let out at the ranch so that they can walk or bike the rest of the way.

It would be good if the Water District and the County were involved now to improve the trail on their properties and even provide a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the creek so the trail users could get easily to the park and to the tunnel under the highway.

Now that there will be an Aliso Creek connection with either the shuttle or a trail, there will be a wonderful opportunity to improve this whole area of Aliso Canyon. We urge the Commission, County, Water District and applicant’s participation in a comprehensive approach that considers restoring the lagoon at the inland side of the Aliso Creek Coast Highway bridge, improvements to creek water quality, the trail and bike/pedestrian bridge and landscaping/vegetation restoration of the creek, the trail and Country Club Road areas.

7. Group Camping at Scout Camp

We are supportive of the idea of providing group camping experiences at the Scout Camp because of the 1935 dedication of that land by the Dolph sisters, Blanche and Florence, for a girl scout camp, named in honor of their mother. The applicant has stated that he will continue the historical name for the Scout Camp, Elizabeth Dolph Camp, as requested by the 1935 dedication document. The 2-acre area of the Camp was part of the Goff Homestead and was the site of the Eucalyptus grove they planted in the late 1800s to prove up their homestead, approved by President Grover Cleveland in 1896. The Eucalyptus trees that are there now are the descendants of this original grove and thus are historically significant. It was only in 2007 that this parcel was made part of the golf course property when the previous owner purchased the camp area from the YMCA. (See attached article.)

The articles attached demonstrate that the history of the grove as presented on page 50 of the staff report is incorrect. The grove was not a part of the Thurston homestead, rather it was within the homestead of Leon Goff, as noted above. The grove was large and mature when the photograph (ca. 1900) of the canyon shown on the last page of the article was taken. The Goff homestead was purchased by the Dolphs in 1905, then the 2-acre grove property given to the Girl Scouts in 1935. It was never owned by the Thurstons—it was only conveyed to the Joe Thurston Foundation in 1962 after his death (1957). The Laguna Beach Girl Scouts dedicated the property to the Foundation when they needed a local caretaker organization to take title. In 1967 the Thurston Foundation trustees gave the property to the YMCA.

The grove is a significant historical resource and the conditions should support this status, including preserving the Eucalyptus trees.

8. Parking

While we agree with the staff’s concern about protecting the public parking opportunities at Aliso Beach, we would like to point out that there are only a few days a year—hot summer weekends—when the inland parking lot is heavily used by beach goers. On most days the inland parking lot is completely empty. We view the use of this parking for Ranch events on days when it would not be used by beach goers as a benefit for the public attending the events and as a way to generate income for the Aliso Beach Park that public agency would not otherwise earn.

9. Fitness Center

We are supportive of making the fitness center available to people who are not hotel guests, including local residents at times when parking demand is low, or if the center is accessed on foot or by bicycle.

10. Removal and Revegetation Plan for Scout Camp

We are supportive of restoration of native plants in the vicinity of the Scout Camp, however, we object to removal of any Eucalyptus trees unless it is necessary for public safety. As mentioned above, these trees are part of the historic grove and that important heritage of homesteading from the 19th century should be considered along with restoration goals. The staff report states that the Eucalyptus Grove was not identified as a heritage grove ‘significant resource’ in Laguna Beach documents. We have been in communication with the professionals who performed the inventory in 1983 and this was an oversight due to the inaccessibility of the grove to public observers. Other similar, accessible groves were documented as heritage groves on the Heritage Tree Inventory.

In addition, the trees provide roosting sites for Monarch butterflies.

From the Monarch’s point of view, the introduction of eucalypts was a wonderful boon. Unlike native pines, cypresses, and redwoods, eucalypts are flowering plants; better yet, they flower in the winter, when the travel-weary butterflies need nectar. Unlike the California Sycamore — the only native tree south of Big Sur that might have hosted colonies — gum trees keep their leaves year-round, providing better sites for attachment and protection.

Jared Farmer, author of “Trees in Paradise:  a California History”

The native plant restoration can still be successful among these existing trees.

Planting expert Randy Baldwin of San Marcos Growers has compiled a recommended list of plants that can be successfully grown among Eucalyptus, and this list includes plants that are native to Aliso Canyon.

He states that “the chemical compounds in the (Eucalyptus) have long been thought to prevent the growth of other plants, but this is now considered minor’ in comparison to competition and the possibility of new plants being smothered by the litter of bark and leaves.

In the case of The Ranch, all of the leaves, bark and mulch has already been removed from the ground, leaving clear areas for establishment of the restoration plants. It seems to us that these trees should not be sacrificed when there is a good chance the restoration can be successful without their removal.

Consider also that this restoration area will be carefully maintained by the Ranch. It will not be left on its own after an initial establishment period as happens with many restoration projects in remote areas. Leaves and bark that may drop will be removed and plants that die will be replaced.

It also seems to us that the amount of care and supervision that will occur here should obviate the need for a permanent fence around the restoration area.

Rather than requiring the removal of trees and installing fencing, we suggest that the periodic performance inspections recommended by Dr. Koteen will allow the Commission staff to monitor the progress of the restoration and adjust the strategy if needed.

12. Camping and Event Use at the Scout Camp

Twelve small group camping experiences noted in the staff report seem reasonable and will be much appreciated. The length of time allowed for each camping event and costs should be specified. The limit of 12 campers seems too small to accommodate a troop of scouts and leaders. We are told there may be 20 scouts and at least 3 adult leaders in a weekend camp-out.

We suggest that a limit of 150 people per event at the Scout Camp is reasonable, and 100 person limit proposed in the staff report is too restrictive. Consider that Laguna Beach has few locations where even a medium size event (150 people) can occur and none others in a comparable secluded setting. Allowing this increase will provide the opportunity for more members of the public who are not hikers, bicyclists or golfers to also experience the beautiful canyon.

16. Final Water Quality Management Plan

We are supportive of the recommended water quality requirements.

17. Area of Potential Archaeological Significance

We are supportive of the recommended archaeological resources protection provisions.
In summary, we recommend that the Commission:

1. Assure that the trail will be implemented within a reasonable time frame.

2. Remove the requirement to take the shuttle to Coast Highway.

3. Facilitate cooperative planning and agreements with appropriate agencies to implement trail, lagoon and stream restoration, and landscape improvements at the mouth of Aliso Canyon.

4. Acknowledge the historic significance of the Eucalyptus grove and preserve all of the existing trees. Correct the historical information in the staff report.

5. Require only temporary fencing at the restoration area.

6. Allow use of the Aliso Beach inland parking area by the Ranch at times when it is  not used by beach

7. Allow making the fitness center to be available to people who are not hotel guests, including local residents, at times when parking demand is low, or if they access it on foot or by bicycle.

8.    Specify the length of time for camping events and the cost. Increase the number of allowed campers from 12 to 24.

9.   Increase the number of allowed event attendees at the Scout Camp from 100 to 150.

Thank you for considering our comments. We are looking forward to the completion of this project and related improvements. Our organization is committed to working with the Commission, the applicant, City, County and the South Coast Water District to assure workable, beautiful and ecologically balanced solutions for trail, bridge and restoration of the Creek and westerly canyon area.