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A Developing Issue in Laguna Beach

Land use: What appeared to be a slam-dunk 18-home project has run into opposition--and alleged missing records.


The latest proposal for 18 ocean-view homes on a Laguna Beach hillside might seem rather humdrum. The land is already zoned for houses. The plots were terraced into the hill decades ago. And no public infrastructure improvements are needed.

But opponents abound. They are alarmed not so much about the development itself, but about what the proposed 19-acre Driftwood Estates is adjacent to: a 209-acre parcel that environmentalists have been fighting to preserve for more than 10 years. The land is home to endangered species and connected to key wildlife corridors extending into thousands of acres of wilderness.

Then there's the matter of records that some people contend are missing.

Neighbors allege that government documents citing the Esslinger family for illegal grading on the 19-acre Driftwood property in the 1960s, along with orders to restore the land to its natural state, were in city files as recently as two years ago. But when they went to look for the letters not long ago, they said the file was gone.

Ignoring any order to restore the 19 acres could create an obstacle for the Driftwood development.

"I saw letters with the county seal on them saying the land was graded illegally and demanding that the property be restored," said Penny Elia, a Laguna Beach resident active in the Sierra Club's Sierra Sage chapter. "They were very harsh letters."

Nonsense, said Darren Esslinger. "They might as well say the moon is made of cheese," he said, expressing surprise at the mounting opposition to the development plan. "These people have an agenda." He said the family was never cited for illegal grading.

According to Esslinger, it has been known for years that homes would be built at Driftwood. "It's been zoned for development, and there is nothing unique about it," he said. "It has no environmental significance."

Earlier Plans Fell Through

Previous development proposed for the residential-zoned property included the adjacent 209 acres. Those plans fell through. Activists fear the latest plan for just the Driftwood section, now in the initial stages of the approval process, is a prelude to the piecemeal development of the entire property.

The 19-acre Driftwood project calls for 18 lots on nearly five acres, plus a four-acre view park and nearly nine acres of dedicated open space that includes high-quality southern maritime chaparral. Buyers would purchase lots and then build custom homes on them.

The Driftwood proposal, while not expected to displace endangered wildlife, would likely affect big-leaved crown-beard--a yellow-flowered member of the daisy family--and other chaparral, as well as small amounts of coastal sage scrub. Three times the amount of plant species lost to development and two times that lost to fire-prevention zones would be preserved in the open-space area.

Esslinger will need approvals from the city, the California Coastal Commission and possibly the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Individual buyers will also need permission from the Coastal Commission to build their custom homes.

The proposal, Esslinger said, has nothing to do with the wilderness adjacent to Driftwood. "The rest of the property is zoned open space," he said. "I don't even think there is a question it will stay that way. . . . We don't want it to be anything but open space.

"That open space is like a family heirloom," Esslinger said, adding that his family intends to maintain ownership of the land. "We've been good stewards of it."

Draft environmental documents for Driftwood say there is no development proposed on the adjacent 209-acre parcel, which abuts Aliso & Wood Canyons Regional Park. But the land's fate is not mentioned.

"I would have hoped that . . . [it] would be dedicated open space and non-buildable," Laguna Beach Councilman Wayne Baglin said of the 209 acres. "That's certainly something I though we had talked about for many years."

Councilwoman Toni Iseman echoed the concern over Esslinger's intentions for the 209 acres.

"It's very important land. As a society, we have a tendency to . . . worry about saving the rain forest when we have land in our own neighborhood that deserves to be preserved."

She added that the city also has to guard against the "domino effect" from development of the 19-acre parcel.

Environmentalists go further, saying Esslinger needs to agree in writing that the land will remain a preserved, passive-recreation area.

"If there's no guarantee as to what happens with that open space, I don't see how the project can move forward," said Roger von Butow, a Laguna Beach resident and public advocate for the South Orange County Watershed Conservancy. "The conservancy feels that if he was willing to donate that space in perpetuity to a conservancy, then we would feel project has more merit."

Esslinger said his family wants to continue looking after the land themselves.

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