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Headlands project heads into future

Developer celebrates after years-long battles over the Dana Point site. But foes see a 'catastrophic' loss.

September 18, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After more than 30 years of legal, legislative and environmental battles, the multimillion-dollar development on the Dana Point Headlands -- one of the last untouched promontories in the region -- was unveiled in a coming-out party Wednesday afternoon.

Invited guests could nibble hors d'oeuvres under a white tent while enjoying rolling waves, sea breezes, a rugged coastline -- and an estimated $18-million view.

Eventually, the 121-acre project will have 118 ocean-view homes, with the premium locations a few dozen feet above the sand -- plus five parks, a 90-room hotel and spa and a 35,000-square-foot shopping center.

"It's the culmination of a long, arduous process," said Sanford Edward, president of Headlands Reserve, which is developing the property. Edward bought the land a decade ago, and said clearing all the regulatory hurdles "was tougher than I thought it was going to be."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Dana Point Headlands: An article in Thursday's California section about the Dana Point Headlands project said developers completely leveled the original outcropping, home to the endangered Pacific pocket mouse and threatened California gnatcatcher. In fact, 30 acres were set aside as a conservation park for wildlife.

Just 15 or so homes are under construction at the site, where grassy, 9,000- to 10,000-square-foot parcels are selling for as much as $12.5 million -- for the land alone. Although the average sale price has been half that, the $12.5-million deal broke Orange County records, said Edward, as he flipped through renderings of the Tuscan-style, Cape Cod and boxy contemporary homes being built.

Once buyers own the dirt, the houses -- with such luxurious touches as infinity pools, home theaters and eight-car garages -- can cost $10 million more.

To make way for the houses, developers completely leveled the original outcropping, home to the endangered Pacific pocket mouse and threatened California gnatcatcher, and reshaped 2 million cubic yards of earth into the terraced lots of the Strand at Headlands. The land is supported by extensive retaining walls of concrete blocks. To the south, the rocky promontory shielding Dana Point Harbor remains.

Conservationists describe the development as "catastrophic." The California Coastal Commission's 2004 approval of the project was "a tragic loss for the coast and coastal protection," said Mark Massara, director of coastal programs for the Sierra Club. Referring to Wednesday's celebration, Massara said: "These guys are like dancing on this desecrated bluff; it's just really a shame."

City officials in Dana Point, who initially signed off on the project more than six years ago, are excited about the 68 acres of new parks and trails.

"I think people are watching the p's and q's to make sure the developer delivers what he promised," said Mayor Joel Bishop.

Dana Point voters rejected more extensive building plans in 1994. Bishop said this effort strikes a balance between natural features and new construction. "Once it's done, there will be a great sense of closure," he said.

As the gated neighborhood gradually fills in, beachgoers will have four access points to the Strand, as the stretch of sand is known, rather than a single stairway that's long been the only route to the water.

Headlands Reserve is building a $2-million motorized rail car system to move people up and down the bluff, in addition to public restrooms. Visitors can also take one of three new stairways or trails to the beach.

A new public sidewalk runs 2,200 feet along the length of the development, just below a green metal fence where each front-row lot has its own built-in beach access. The path is next to a new sea wall, a controversial structure that some foes of the project believed violated the state's Coastal Act.

A few strollers passed on the new sidewalk Wednesday afternoon while a handful of body boarders, surfers and sunbathers dotted the shore. On the bluff above, chain-link fencing was bordered by newly planted palms and birds of paradise.

Even as the real estate market is in a slump nationwide, prospects for selling the prime, cliff-top lots look bright, Edward said. More than 30 of the parcels have been sold, but only a portion have been put on the market.

"Oceanfront real estate in Orange County is still more than holding its value," Edward said. "In spite of the downturn, the values continue to go up."

While the land has been selling more slowly than last year, the lots are more expensive than ever. Edward said the best corner lot with the widest stretch of shore will probably sell for $18 million. Buyers, he said, have come from as far away as Australia, and the majority will live here full time.

"This is like you're on Hawaii," Edward said Wednesday as caterers bustled by, preparing for the party, and the sun glittered on the water below.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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