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How Vigilance Won Out at Crystal Cove

Aggressive efforts by environmentalists persuaded the state to drop a resort plan in favor of a learning center, public access.

November 09, 2002|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

A crucial point in the battle over Crystal Cove occurred nearly two years ago behind a building at a Corona del Mar elementary school.

Developer Michael Freed, who wanted to transform the rustic beachside shacks into a $30-million resort, came face to face with vocal environmentalist Joan Irvine Smith, a member of the powerful Irvine family.

Freed, who had developed a similar coastal resort at Big Sur a few years earlier, was about to lay out his development plan for Crystal Cove, which featured exclusive $400-a-night cottages. Smith was determined to stop him.

Freed asked Smith if they could meet to discuss the development. Smith agreed, but when she arrived at the school for the February 2001 public meeting, a friend suggested that she not be seen with Freed. So the two talked behind the building 30 minutes before Freed and the state Parks Department presented his plan.

When Freed began to describe his proposal to Smith, she cut him off.

"Mr. Freed, I don't like your plan," she said.

Residents booed and heckled as the development was outlined that night. It was the starting point of lobbying, fund-raising and behind-the-scenes negotiating to derail the project.

In the end, Smith and other environmentalists won out -- but only after months of protests and negotiations.

Last month the state proposed a far more modest plan -- an education and cultural center offering overnight stays at the refurbished cottages for no more than $100 -- at the enclave south of Newport Beach.

Smith and others attribute the turnabout to aggressive efforts by environmentalists and local residents who fought to keep Crystal Cove accessible to the public.

Friends of the Irvine Coast, the Sierra Club, the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove and other groups had been working to open the cottages to the public since the state took possession of the property from the Irvine Co. in 1979.

They championed preservation of the 1920s-era cottages, one of the last examples of a Southern California beach colony. For decades, the cottages were used by longtime tenants of the Irvine family. When the state took over the land, it planned to evict the tenants immediately.

But the tenants clung tenaciously for two decades to their cottages, stalling their removal until June 2001. "I knew our time was up," said Laura Davick, whose parents met at the cove in 1940 and bought their cottage for $2,000 in 1960. "I wanted to be involved in the big picture, the long-term preservation [of the cottages]."

But that plan called for a lot of money -- about $30 million -- that the state could not afford.

Freed's development plan seemed a win-win for the state: The cottages would be restored, major improvements to the infrastructure would be made and the state would not have to pay for it. As a bonus, the state would collect sales tax revenue from a resort.

Soon after Smith declared her opposition to the planned resort in January 2001, she called a meeting at her farm in San Juan Capistrano with the groups involved in the preservation of Crystal Cove. Over two days, she brought together representatives of the Nature Conservancy, Orange County Coastkeeper, Sierra Club, Defend the Bay, Natural Resources Defense Council, Laguna Canyon Conservancy, Friends of the Irvine Coast and others.

"You may not all agree on the outcome," she told them, "but let's find a common line, and that's: Stop the development."

At urging of allies, Smith attended a fund-raiser for Gov. Gray Davis and talked to him and his wife, Sharon, about Crystal Cove. The first lady has a special interest in restoration of historic buildings and seemed intrigued by Crystal Cove.

Paul Morabito, then the new director of the state Coastal Conservancy, said he spoke with the governor, who urged the group to find a way to keep the land open to the public without a resort.

Within weeks, the state was negotiating with Freed, who ultimately agreed to a $2-million buyout. The Coastal Conservancy, which works to enhance public access to the coast, agreed to pay the sum.

Freed could not be reached for comment.

Now all the state needed was $13 million to fund the restoration of the cottages and other repairs.

Davick and Smith sponsored a Feb. 26 fund-raiser for Proposition 40, a $2.6-billion bond measure to fund parks and recreation projects that was about to go before voters in March. They raised $25,000 for the measure, which passed. Davis earmarked $9.2 million of that for Crystal Cove.

The state is now about to take bids for the restoration and improvements. Officials hope to have the first cottages ready for the public in 2004.

But Smith is cautious: "I've had years of experience. At first blush it looks like everything is in place and everything will go forward, and the next thing you know everything falls apart. You have to have constant vigilance."

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