Rancho Palos Verdes officials are cheering the California Coastal Commission's approval of a $135-million public golf course and residential development, saying the project will bring jobs, money and prestige to the financially ailing city.
The project, which includes an 18-hole golf course, 83 luxury homes and a 35-acre preserve for the endangered California gnatcatcher, will add about $500,000 annually to the city coffers--a major boost in the wake of the closure of the Marineland aquatic center in early 1987.
"It's the best thing to happen to the city in 10 years," Mayor Susan Brooks said after the commission's ruling Thursday. "This will be an aesthetically pleasing, environmentally enhancing and world-class golf course. It will put us on the map."
The commission's decision cleared a major hurdle for developer Barry Hon and the Zuckerman family, who together want to build the Ocean Trails project. But significant pockets of resistance remain.
Next month, city officials and developers will go to court on a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmentalists who argue that the project does not provide enough public access and violates state environmental protection laws.
Those concerns were spotlighted before the coastal commission Thursday in a four-hour hearing that included emotional testimony from people on both sides of the issue.
Supporters of the plan, wearing blue golf caps, sat on one side of the room while opponents, sporting orange paper badges bearing the initials CCC for the Coastal Conservation Coalition, sat on the other.
At the start of the hearing, the commission's staff presented a 70-page report that detailed several problems with the project. The report recommended that the commission approve the plan, with the provision that developers agree to set aside 16 acres of the proposed 100-acre golf course for park land.
Environmentalists complained that the additional park land was inadequate. But developers said the entire project would be jeopardized if they were forced to reduce the size of the golf course.
In the end, commissioners rejected the staff's recommendation, approving instead an amended version of the developers' plan that leaves the golf course intact but adds a wheelchair-accessible trail to the site. The developers also agreed to try to expand available park land whenever possible.
"I think (the project) is going to be good for the public in that it provides more access to the beach and habitat," commission chairman Thomas W. Gwyn said after the hearing.
In addition to the golf course, houses and nature preserve, the 261-acre project includes about 39 acres of open space--much of it along the bluffs overlooking the ocean.
Environmentalists were surprised and disappointed by the commission's ruling, saying they believe the commission bowed to political pressure from state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and state Sen. David Roberti (D-Van Nuys), both of whom wrote letters supporting the project.
"At the absolute minimum, we thought the commission should go for the staff's recommendation, but even that didn't go far enough," said Andy Sargent, president of the Coastal Conservation Coalition, which includes seven environmental groups opposed to the project.
That view was endorsed by commissioner Lily Cervantes, who cast the lone vote against the project. She said the development deprives the public of recreational park areas that it has been enjoying since the 1920s. She also questioned whether a golf course, even one open to the public, can qualify as public open space when greens fees are expected to be as much as $100 a round.
"It's the battle between elitism and the public good," Cervantes said. "The proponents of this project would rather look at the window and see people who look like them (playing) on a golf course than see inner-city families picnicking with their children at a park."
City officials, however, bristled at her comment.
"What she's doing is trying to draw ethnic ties to something that has nothing to do with class or ethnicity," said Mayor Brooks, who noted that 20% of the city's 42,000 residents are Asian. "I think that statement is a very racist statement."
Brooks, who pointed out that the city already has 12 parks, said revenue generated by the project will help the city restore its recreational program, which was cut earlier this year to cope with budget constraints.
"This project will give people from all over the greater Los Angeles Basin a haven, a respite, a place to get away to that's beautiful," Brooks said. "The golf course will bring in a diversity of people not only from the South Bay, but from the whole world."