Dana Point city officials are close to reaching an agreement to develop the Headlands, the last vacant oceanfront property in south Orange County.
The City Council and the property's owners are working out the final details of a plan to put 130 homes and two inns on the 121-acre site with 62 acres set aside as public beach and parkland. Final approval for the $500-million project won't come until after public hearings this spring.
"I can safely say this is the best plan for the Headlands that we've ever seen," said City Councilman Bill Ossenmacher. But "I know it's not a perfect plan, and not everyone's going to like it."
About the only controversy arising from the negotiations--the latest in what has been a contentious battle for more than a decade--concerns secrecy over the details. Environmentalists are grumbling that the city and the owners, Headlands Reserve LLC and M.H. Sherman Co., are not revealing enough information because of ongoing litigation.
"I'm kind of annoyed that we've been given this tease without any follow-up," said Cliff Wasserman, a member of Save the Headlands community association.
What the city and the owners have released is a conceptual agreement that calls for two 50-room inns, about 40,000 square feet of commercial space, about 130 residential lots, at least 62 acres of public open space and at least 13 acres of private open space. The public open space includes habitat for the endangered Pacific pocket mouse and two other parks.
The plan represents a dramatic reduction in the scale of development. Originally, a 400-room hotel was planned along with 370 homes.
That plan, though approved by the City Council, was scrapped after a 1994 voter referendum overturned the council's decision. Two lawsuits, several appeals and many alternate proposals followed.
The city has spent nearly $1 million in the fight so far; the landowners have spent more. By the time any of the $1-million-plus lots are up for sale, Headlands Reserve LLC principal Sanford Edward said he would have spent $100 million.
But that is several years away. Edward said he expects to release land-use plans and other planning and environmental documents around year's end. Planning Commission, City Council and California Coastal Commission hearings will follow.
Edward added that although he believes a larger-scale plan would prevail in court, the prospect of extended and costly litigation prompted him to make cuts.
"We've made a tremendous amount of concessions. If I wanted to be [difficult], I could try to jam 261 lots and substantially more hotel rooms and commercial space" under the city's existing general plan, he said.
"What we're doing is in the best interest of the community, the landholder and the city," Edward said. "We listened to the community. The community said [it] wanted as much public open space as possible and as little commercial development as possible."
But preservationists, such as retired lawyer Elinor Orlandella, remain wary.
Orlandella, a member of Save the Headlands, said the group has remained quiet during negotiations, eagerly awaiting a status report. But it simply does not provide enough detail, she said.
Under open space, the settlement proposal includes bluff faces and vegetated slopes, she noted. "How much of it is actual usable open space? We really don't have enough information to form an opinion.
"We've always said it would be wonderful if the Headlands didn't have to be developed, but we're realistic people," said Orlandella, who has lived in Dana Point since 1971.
"We've always called for responsible development that respects the quality of the site and the environmental sensitivities. There are so few places left on the California coast that have any value, and we'd like to see at least one small one remain."
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Dana Point, Headlands Reserve LLC and the M.H. Sherman Co. have agreed on the basic land-use parameters for the 121-acre Headlands, the last open piece of coastal property in South Orange County. The public approval process, which includes actions by the city planning commission and city council and the state's coastal commission, will likely be underway by spring.
Preliminary land-use summary:
* up to 130 custom-home lots
* two bed and breakfasts that have up to 50 rooms each
* up to 40,000 square feet of commercial space
* at least 62 acres of public open space, including a nature park seaward of Marguerite road, a linear park about the strand beach and a hilltop park
* at least 13 acres of private open space
* four miles of public walkways or trails
* other public amenities
Source: Headlands Interim Status Report