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Make or break

Surf group opposes builder's plan in Dana Point.

September 30, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Dana Point — Four surfers paddled out into a 3-foot swell, a few strokes from a site that is at the center of one of the biggest land-use controversies in Southern California -- one with the potential, surf advocates say, to change the break at Dana Strands forever. The bluff overlooking the beach, a 121-acre parcel known as the Headlands and Strand, is earmarked to become a gated community of multimillion-dollar homes. The project would be anchored by a sea wall that could impact both waves and shore, surfers maintain.

The developer is hoping the California Coastal Commission will approve the project next month in San Diego. But he is opposed by surfers and environmentalists who claim the construction will lead to the erosion of one of the best surfing beaches in Southern California. The Sierra Club is calling the commission's vote its most important of the year.

On one side is Sanford Edward, an Orange County developer trying to build 125 ocean-view homes, a 65-room seaside inn and 40,000 square feet of commercial space on the property.

On the other is a group led by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, which contends that the development will cause both beach erosion and habitat damage. The sea wall would thin the beach, and wave reflection from the backwash off the wall would wreck the waves, Surfrider maintains.

"We want the coast to have enough room to breathe," said Chad Nelsen, Surfrider's environmental director.

Edward says Surfrider's real motive is to keep the beach for surfers alone. "That's why they're fighting me," he said. "It's their last private beach."

The contentious story dates back almost 30 years, when it was owned by the powerful Chandler family, the former owners of the Los Angeles Times. Back then, the land was vacant except for a small trailer park. The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a plan in 1974 that would have allowed more than 800 homes, two 400-room hotels and 27 acres of commercial development. But as environmental and growth concerns increased, those numbers became unsalable. In 1994, Dana Point residents rescinded the City Council's approval of a plan that would have allowed 370 homes and a 400-room hotel.

After considerable legal wrangling with the city, Edward came up with his current plan for 125 homes and an inn. He's also agreed to add a lighthouse and war memorial to the property as a show of civic good faith.

"Our project provides more coastal and direct beach access than any other project in the history of Orange County," he noted. He pointed out that roughly half of the property would be parks, with land worth millions set aside for habitat preservation.

But last week, the Coastal Commission staff issued a report urging commissioners to deny Edward's application, saying it violated a number of California Coastal Act policies, including "armoring" the cliff base with an enhanced sea wall.

Mark Masara, who monitors coastal commission issues for the Sierra Club, said Edward "gets credit for coming up with a development scheme that's an improvement over past development plans, but our position is that the Headlands and Strand is one of the last great coastal places in California."

Surfrider, based in nearby San Clemente, has collected thousands of signatures opposing the development. The group claims the project, if approved, would open the floodgates to other sea walls along the coast.

On the beach, surfer Joe Grant was trotting to the swells at one end of the cove. "There's not a lot of beach left like this," he said, when asked about the project. "I'd be against it."

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