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Pushing High End at Sea Level

Aging, affluent population fuels rise in beach resorts. Public access issues linger.


Breakers toss salt into the breeze as a beachcomber eyes a tide pool. A skim-boarder shoots skyward, then plunges into the foam. On this warm fall day, in a Laguna Beach cove with surf-sculpted rock arches and bougainvillea-draped bluffs, just two sunbathers share the sand with the darting seabirds.

In the past, the few visitors here mostly scrambled down from Treasure Island, a bluff-top trailer park looking out to Santa Catalina Island. Retirees and middle-class families shared paradise with part-time residents such as John Wayne's widow, Pilar, and weekend fugitives from inland heat and smog.

In the future, far more visitors will stroll down from the trailer park's replacement: a 275-room resort hotel, 18 estate homes and 19 condos for the wealthy, with beach trails, scenic overlooks and 70 parking slots for everyone else.

Here and at choice coastal sites from San Diego County to Santa Barbara, four- and five-star resorts will proliferate in the coming decades, along with upgrades of older hotels. At least 14 such projects are in various stages of development in Southern California, motivated by a web of economic, demographic and political factors.

Old classics such as San Diego's Hotel del Coronado and the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito have been joined by more than a dozen major resorts in recent years, notably a cluster of four-diamond properties in San Diego.

A 1980s boom produced resorts such as the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, before ending in recession and a glut of rooms. But occupancy is again high, especially at expensive hotels.

"The California coast has really been underserved" with high-end resorts, Los Angeles hotel consultant Bruce Baltin said. "There aren't that many around, and the ones that are have done very well."

Local governments embrace the resorts for several reasons, not least the taxes they pour into municipal coffers. The projects typically create public parks and beach trails that otherwise would be too expensive to build along the coast. And local business and civic groups welcome meeting rooms.

Even the California Coastal Commission, often the bane of development, can become a powerful ally. The agency is an advocate for "visitor serving" land uses--ones that allow inlanders to enjoy coastal recreation. Resorts satisfy that requirement so long as developers provide some free or lower-cost beach access to offset the upscale lodgings.

Underlying these factors are prosperous times and the powerful demographics of an aging population. Analysts say millions of baby boomers in their peak earning years are demanding high-end recreation, often several short getaways a year instead of the long summer vacations of their childhoods.

As always, standing in between developers and the coastline are powerful and vocal environmental interests such as the Sierra Club, which has been adept at delaying big coastal projects for years.

Opposition to Development

Indeed, many of these resorts will be constructed over the objections of environmentalists and current beach denizens.

"An awful lot of people who move to these areas to live don't want to share their beaches," said Gary Timm, district manager for the Coastal Commission's Ventura office.

Timm's district includes Malibu, where wrangling over a proposed upscale hotel on Pacific Coast Highway has gone on since 1985. The developers, who wanted 250 rooms, are mulling over a city counteroffer to allow 100 rooms now and 46 later if the hotel meets civic expectations.

"People always would rather see nothing more developed. And that might be nice," Timm said. "But there is such a thing as property rights out there, so some development will take place. It becomes a balancing act."

While Malibu has a dearth of hotel rooms, its coastline is dotted with numerous beach parks for the public, the kind of open space use advocated by groups like the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists contend that tourism is likely to suffer as continued development destroys the beauty of the coast. The California Coastal Act encourages easy, affordable beach access, not hotels for the super-rich, they say.

"People have always come to the California coast to experience wild lands," said Mark Massara, head of coastal programs for the Sierra Club.

"It's worth much more preserved as open space, beach access or agricultural use. If what people want is a Radisson, they can go to Anywhere, U.S.A. And the more we clutter our coastal zone, the worse we're going to hurt our coastal economy."

Population Shift Aids Boom

Not surprisingly, most tourism experts strongly disagree.

"The reality is I think there's room for it," said John Poimiroo, director of the state Division of Tourism.

"Upper-end hotels are the ones that are full. It's the middle and lower end that are hurting to fill the rooms," he said. "People want to indulge themselves on vacations, and they're willing to pay for special experiences."

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