LAGUNA NIGUEL — After a fiery meeting, the Laguna Niguel City Council this morning voted to go to court in a bid to void a 1988 transaction that gave up public rights to nearly 100 acres once planned for parkland.
Emerging from a 3 1/2-hour executive session shortly after 1 a.m., the council voted 4 to 0 to halt further development on the property and to sue Taylor Woodrow Homes California Ltd. for damage caused by the luxury homes already built on the land.
All public interest in the land, estimated to be worth between $40 million and $70 million, was relinquished in a deed signed by Laguna Niguel Councilman James F. Krembas three months before Taylor Woodrow hired his wife. About 100 homes now stand on the property and foundations for another 77 have been laid. The land, now part of the Marina Hills subdivision, borders the Salt Creek Corridor Regional Park. "We are saying that our business is protecting the public's property and the public's rights," Laguna Niguel Mayor Patricia Bates said. "And when necessary we will do it with force."
Krembas, who is under investigation by the Orange County district attorney's office, abstained. He reiterated his earlier denials of impropriety on his part, suggesting that the blame lies elsewhere.
Krembas alleged that Taylor Woodrow had misrepresented the deed as part of another transaction and that government officials had failed to correct the misconception. He signed the deed while serving on the Laguna Niguel Community Services District.
The council early today also voted to investigate the actions of James S. Okazaki, then the district board's attorney who notarized the deed, and James S. Mocalis, the chief executive of the board who signed the deed. Krembas said he was pleased by the action.
"I said there were no improprieties that the CSD committed," Krembas said. "I did not say there were no improprieties all the way around."
Taylor Woodrow President Gordon Tippell appeared stunned by the action. Tippell, two lawyers and other staff members came armed with stacks of documents and maps prepared to explain the land transfer but were given a total of six minutes to present their case.
Tippell told the council that his firm's plans to build on the land previously dedicated as open space had been approved by the county in 1985 in exchange for a park and ball fields and other public benefits. Krembas' signature on the deed "simply formalized this agreement," Tippell said.
Tippell also contended that the district board had been fully apprised of the land transfer--and in fact voted to approve it--at a meeting on Jan. 20, 1988.
The council's vote came after an emotionally charged meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 residents who packed the tiny council chambers and spilled over into a parking lot. About a dozen residents who told the council that they were shocked and saddened by news accounts of the land transfer drew applause and occasional cheers from the audience.
"Ninety-nine acres disappeared, and I say to myself, 'How can that happen?' " said Charles Gorenstein, director of the Laguna Niguel Environmental Coalition, pounding his fist on the speaker's podium.