Three state and federal agencies approved a resort developer's plan to moor a pleasure craft off Laguna Beach's shore, all while the proposal was unknown to city officials, who say it would violate local laws.
The Athens Group is looking to add panache to its five-star resort under construction at Treasure Island by offering hotel guests sunset cruises and fishing expeditions on the 50-foot boat. It seeks to build a concrete-and-buoy mooring system in six meters of water near a fragile marine preserve along the scenic coastline.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the State Lands Commission and the State Water Resources Control Board all have signed off on the Phoenix-based developer's plan. Application documents obtained from the agencies show the mooring site at two possible locations: 550 feet or 750 feet offshore.
The proposal goes before the California Coastal Commission in November. Several attempts to reach Athens Group officials were unsuccessful.
The Athens Group was not obligated to tell the city about its mooring plans, since those fall within state purview. But city leaders are clearly irked that the developer has not informed them.
"Being a business person, I recognize the developer's primary purpose in life is to make a profit," said City Councilman Wayne Baglin. "Sometimes they don't feel dealing with the city of Laguna Beach is the best way to get to that point. I don't think it was the neighborly thing to do if they truly wish to be part of our community."
The planned mooring site is within the area of a proposed state marine reserve, and just outside an existing city marine reserve.
One of the major questions for Laguna Beach officials is how the hotel plans to get guests to and from the pleasure boat. The city forbids motorboats from coming ashore.
In addition, environmentalists raise concerns about a mooring site in the proposed preserve, and voice suspicions that the hotel eventually plans a much bigger boat operation with a virtual offshore marina.
According to a Coastal Commission official, the resort is planning to take guests to the boat in an inflatable dinghy with a small motor.
Marina Cazorla, an environmental specialist in the commission's San Francisco office, said an Athens official told her last week that the resort would abide by the city's rules by having guests wade a few feet into the ocean to climb into the inflatable boat, rather than bring it fully ashore.
But city officials say even that plan would violate city law.
Mark Klosterman, Laguna Beach's chief of marine safety/chief lifeguard, said the city forbids motorized boats within 200 yards of shore.
He said this is to protect swimmers, snorkelers, kayakers and other recreational users. This prohibition would also ban the pleasure craft from mooring at the 550-foot offshore site. The alternate site 750 feet offshore would not be affected.
City officials learned of the proposal only in recent weeks, though the Athens Group has been working on it for more than a year.
The Army Corps gave its approval Oct. 4, 2000, and, because of procedural rules, the state water board approval would have had to come earlier, said Stacey Baczkowski, an environmental specialist with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, also a state agency.
The Coastal Commission also received a project description on Oct. 4, 2000.
The commission is the sole remaining hurdle for the mooring, and it nearly gave administrative approval in September.
But Garry Brown, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Orange County CoastKeeper, noticed the plan on the commission's agenda and raised objections.
So the commission put the matter up for a full hearing.
"I'm glad we're having a public hearing on it," said the commission's executive director, Peter Douglas.
Some local residents contend that the developer is trying to sneak something past the city that would harm the coastal environment.
"It would render that marine reserve dysfunctional," said Michael Beanan, vice president of the South Laguna Civic Assn.
"Imagine you have a dedicated greenbelt preserve and you allow Winnebagos to transport people through it."
Brown, of CoastKeeper, said he suspects that the developer wants to eventually allow guests to moor their boats offshore, and this is the first piece of a much larger plan.
"They're never going to be satisfied with one. They're going to want a bunch more," he said. "If they're going to try to piecemeal a mooring marina, let's call it what it is.
"I think it sets a huge precedent for that whole coastline, and we're certainly going to oppose it till the developer communicates with us."