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Housing Project Raises Questions

Laguna Beach: Opponents fear the plan could lead to development of adjoining land coveted as open space.

November 25, 2001|EVAN HALPER and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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

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

Then there's the matter of the missing records. Or at least the 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 documents not long ago, they say, the file was gone.

Ignoring any order to restore the land 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 who is 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 expressed surprise at the mounting opposition. "These people have an agenda," he said, adding that the family was never cited for illegal grading.

Esslinger said 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."

Previous development plans for the residential-zoned property included the adjoining 209 acres. Those plans fell through. Activists fear the latest plan for the Driftwood Estates section, now in the early stages of the approval process, is a prelude to eventual development of the entire property.

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

Esslinger needs 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 San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Individual buyers also would need Coastal Commission permission to build their homes.

The proposal, Esslinger said, has nothing to do with the pristine land next 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.

"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 Estates say there is no development proposed on the 209-acre parcel, which abuts Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. But the land's long-term fate is not mentioned.

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

Councilwoman Toni Iseman echoes the concern over Esslinger's intentions for the property. "It's very important land," she said. Iseman said the city also must guard against the "domino effect" from development of the 19-acre parcel.

Environmentalists go further, saying Esslinger needs to prove 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 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 the [Driftwood Estates] project has more merit."

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

In the 1970s, an outside developer bought an option to build on the property from the family. The developer submitted several proposals to construct hundreds of homes on the 209 acres. None was approved. But environmentalists say that shows the Esslinger family cannot be trusted to preserve the land.

But Darren Esslinger said the family did not realize that the developer intended to build on the entire property and that, when they learned of the proposal, the family went to court to revoke the option.

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