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Regulators at Odds Over 800-Home Irvine Co. Plan

Land use: Corps of Engineers may grant permit to alter creeks. Other agencies fear impact on Crystal Cove.


The Irvine Co. is proudly advertising Crystal Cove, its latest planned community, as an 800-home jewel set among 10,000 acres of carefully protected wild lands. But federal and state officials are sounding alarms about potential effects of the huge new development, being built upstream from the pristine Crystal Cove State Park, and are questioning a controversial approval that may be granted to the developer.

Overriding written objections from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers said this week that once the project gains approval from state water quality officials, it plans to grant the Irvine Co. a permit to fill in or alter up to six miles of the Muddy Canyon and Los Trancos Canyon creeks and their tributaries.

A Fish and Wildlife memo says that is 600 times the length of stream bed that federal law allows to be affected under a national permitting process. But the Army Corps says it also considers the type of stream bed.

"That's huge--that's six miles. I don't remember anything this big," said Rebecca Tuden, the EPA analyst who reviewed and objected to the permit application. "This is not a minimal impact. We think it's going to have major effects downstream."

She said there could be irrevocable loss of plants and wildlife both within the development and on the parkland and beaches below. Most of the runoff from the development will be funneled into Muddy Canyon Creek, run through the state park, one of the largest remaining pieces of natural coastal terrain in Southern California, then spill into the Pacific Ocean.

Irvine Co. officials say the project is a sophisticated, environmentally sound one, with extensive measures for protection of wildlife and water.

"This is one of the most studied and carefully planned coastal communities in Southern California," spokesman Paul Kranhold said. "It's been in the planning stages for 30 years."

The first homes would be ready for sale in about a year.

He said a mile-wide wildlife corridor has been set aside inland at the top of the project area, along with other preserved lands, in exchange for the right to build the community of million-dollar homes.

Sat Tamaribuchi, vice president for environmental affairs, said that the six miles of affected stream bed was mostly a spider web of dry washes and ruts across the property that fill only right after storms and that less than three acres of wetland or active stream bed would be touched.

"That six miles sounds huge, but I would guess there's 100 miles of dry wash we're not touching," in the preserved areas, he said.

The site is being carved out of scenic hills on the inland side of Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. Drivers, joggers and bikers long used to birds wheeling above the bluffs are growing accustomed to other sights and sounds familiar in Orange County: the beep, beep, beep of heavy machinery backing up, the grind of bulldozers and the sprouting of construction trailers on the torn-up hills.

"It's a plague over everything," said Sid Wittenberg, a retired optometrist from Mission Viejo, as he hiked in the state park Friday. "These hills that turn from green to gold will be tiled rooftops instead. The season will be invisible."

Visitors also were dismayed at the Reef Point beach below, where at peak rainy times more than 10,000 gallons per second of urban runoff could run across the beach into the ocean.

"This is a spectacular place. It would be a shame to see it ruined," said Al Ziccardi, 62, a Scottsdale, Ariz., resident visiting his daughter in Orange County. "California has a number of treasures, and this is one of them. Once it's gone, it'll never come back."

Irvine Co. consultants, in an environmental impact report last year, said that while the residential, hotel and shopping center project would spoil some views from the state park, it would do minimal damage to streams and wildlife.

"While the people who use this property might be upset because they are viewing homes instead of hillsides," Kranhold said, "what they need to recognize is that the company has given up its development rights on 78% of the Newport Coast . . . in exchange for the right to develop in these small areas."

Tamaribuchi added: "We're building beautiful homes."

The company's environmental report concluded that water runs in the creeks only occasionally and that specially constructed drain pipes into Muddy Canyon Creek, along with a holding pond, could handle runoff, avoiding flooding and erosion below.

Also open to debate is how water quality will be affected by pesticides, fertilizers, pet waste and other urban runoff that will drain through the park, across the beach and into the ocean.

"Once they get all those homes built, the runoff from the gutters, the roofs, the streets has got nowhere to go but into the state park," said senior Crystal Cove Park Ranger Michael Eaton. "I'm worried that our tide pools may be buried."

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