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Chain Saw Didn't Jibe With 'Sensitive'

After a pledge to respect the ecosystem, builders planning a site near the Montage in Laguna Beach remove vegetation without permits.

October 27, 2005|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

One week after holding a town hall meeting and pledging to be "environmentally sensitive," developers planning a sister property to the oceanfront Montage resort in Laguna Beach are under fire for clearing a couple of acres of brush from riparian habitat without a permit.

"You can't just take a bunch of people up there with chain saws and weed whackers and have at it," said Penny Elia, president of the Hobo Aliso Neighborhood Assn. "What part of playing by the rules don't they understand?"

The discovery comes just days after the Athens Group and partners of the Montage Resort & Spa held a series of community meetings in Laguna Beach touting their commitment to the environment.

The developers have been trying to calm the waters with environmentalists and others since it was revealed last year that they considered building portions of an 18-hole golf course on county parkland. Those plans have since been abandoned.

Last week, the developer unveiled the latest proposal to redevelop the Aliso Creek Inn just southeast of the luxury Montage. Their plans include a 90-room, Craftsman-style lodge, a redesigned nine-hole golf course and condominiums. They also include up to 11 homes to be built on property known as Driftwood Estates -- the site where brush was cleared without permission from any government agency -- and designate about 250 acres as open space.

Officials from the Athens Group apologized Wednesday, describing the brush clearing as an innocent mistake committed under the watchful eye of both a biologist and a city Fire Department battalion chief. And Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank defended their actions: "If it's anybody's fault, it's our fault."

Residents and members of local environmental groups discovered the cleared land last weekend while hiking trails and visiting the property. Elia fired off an angry e-mail to Montage officials asking for an explanation. She also alerted the Coastal Commission, the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The area is considered a "very high value" habitat," Elia said, and brush clearing could have removed endangered plants.

"They can spin it all they want, but they have done a very destructive thing," Elia said.

In a letter to the city, the Athens Group said it cleared the land at the request of neighbors who feared the overgrown brush posed a fire hazard. Before thinning the brush, Athens Group officials met with Laguna Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Head, who inspected the area and "concurred with the proposed treatment."

"It is not, and never was, our intention to circumvent the regulatory requirements of managing our property," wrote Martyn Hoffmann, Athens Group director of forward planning.

Frank said he did not believe there was any intent to skirt the rules. "They thought they were doing a community service for the people who live in the area who don't want the houses burnt," he said.

The area, city officials noted, is not pristine and untouched. In the past, goats were used to thin weeds and brush there.

But Mark Massara, the Sierra Club's coastal director, said the explanations fall short: "These people have lawyers and biologists at their disposal. There's simply no excuse for a developer and real estate owner to make such elementary and fundamental errors."

The Athens Group now plans to obtain necessary approvals by submitting a plan to the city's Design Review Board. In addition, three consulting biologists visited the site Wednesday to help prepare a report requested by the city and other state and federal agencies.

"Without a report, it's really hard to tell what happened ... whether there were any endangered species," said Ann Larson, city planning administrator.

Even if no protected species were destroyed, residents said, they were disheartened by the Athens Group after feeling last week that the developer was committed to protecting the environment.

"I am totally surprised and disappointed," said Bill Rihn, president of the South Laguna Civic Assn. "They got off to such a good start with such good feelings. To do something like this is kind of beyond belief."

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