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Orange County

Marblehead Project Would Devastate Site, Scientists Say

Environment: Coastal Commission staff urges panel to deny the San Clemente development.

September 05, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A powerful state agency's staff is urging rejection of a proposal to turn 250 acres of sandstone coastal bluffs in San Clemente into a tony subdivision and commercial center.

The California Coastal Commission's staff said the revised plan for Marblehead is improved over one that commissioners were poised to veto last year. But staff scientists concluded that the downsized project still would have devastating impacts on coastal canyons and sensitive habitats on the prime real estate.

Once the proposed site for a Nixon library, Marblehead is among the last large, undeveloped coastal parcels in Southern California. The Lusk Co. now proposes building 351 homes and 671,506 square feet of commercial space--down from 424 homes and 700,140 square feet the developer sought in the plan it presented last year.

Even with more open space added to the new plan, commission employees said the project would harm the area's water quality, wetlands, coastal sage and rare flora and fauna such as Blochman's dudleya plants and the coastal California gnatcatcher. And proposed grading of nearly 2.5 million cubic yards of soil and the filling of canyons "would dramatically transform the natural landscapes on the site," according to the report, which was released Friday.

Attempts to reach Lusk Co. officials about the staff recommendation were unsuccessful Wednesday. The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday when it meets in Los Angeles.

The Lusk Co. and the Coastal Commission have battled before. At the March 2001 meeting, the state panel reacted with such vitriol to a prior proposal--admonishing Lusk Chief Executive Jim Johnson to "try and be a little less greedy"--that the company withdrew its plans rather than face a vote. Commissioners also gave the developer a laundry list of project features to be modified to make the proposal consistent with the state's Coastal Act.

"Although the proposed project is notably improved compared with the previous project, the current proposal still raises significant issues," the staff report says.

The grading has been reduced by a third and the number of homes has been decreased, while the amount of open space has increased to 77 acres from 58 acres. Park space increased to 14 acres from 12.

The overall square footage of commercial development planned for 22 acres of the property has been decreased, but the density of shops and businesses that would be clustered nearest the ocean has nearly doubled to 141,506 square feet.

"That's what's so disappointing about it--they think by fudging the numbers a little bit, they'll be able to essentially build the same project" that was rejected previously, said Mark Massara, coastal programs director for the Sierra Club. "This is one of the last remaining open spaces in Orange County in an otherwise overbuilt, overcrowded and exceedingly polluted corridor. No coastal community deserves a project like Marblehead."

San Clemente officials beg to differ. The city, which repeatedly has approved the project in its various forms over the years, is relying on it to plump up its coffers.

"It's time for this property to be developed," Councilwoman Susan Ritschel said. "The city has planned on that property being developed, and has been looking forward to the sales-tax revenue generated from it."

Marblehead was expected to generate $2 million a year in sales taxes and account for 51% of the city's new retail sales tax business growth over the next 10 years. When the developer withdrew its project last year rather than risk a commission veto, the city delayed a number of local projects, including a new senior center and a fire station. "It's a local-control issue," Ritschel said. "Right now, it looks like we have no control over what happens on that piece of property, and it's frustrating."

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Downsized Project

California Coastal Commission staff urged denial of the latest proposal for the Marblehead property in San Clemente. Although it has been downsized, staff scientists fear the project's impact on coastal canyons and sensitive habitats.

2001 Proposal Current Proposal

Grading, in cubic yards 3.8 million 2.5 million

Number of residences 424 351

Residential area 110 acres 74 acres

Commercial 700,140 sq.ft. 671,506 sq.ft.

Commercial in coastal zone 84,313 sq. ft. 141,506 sq.ft.

Open space 58.3 acres 77.3 acres

Parks 12.0 acres 14.0 acres

Public streets 8.5 acres 13.0 acres

Source: California Coastal Commission

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