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Native flower clings to life at fringe of Laguna Beach development

Big-leaved crownbeard endures despite controversial clearing and plans for homes.

January 29, 2009|Susannah Rosenblatt

The humble yellow flower isn't exactly a showstopper.

But to those who want to see development take root in the rugged hills of south Laguna Beach, the big-leaved crownbeard might be just that.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 03, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Endangered plant: An article in Thursday's California section about the big-leaved crownbeard, a plant that grows in part on developer-owned property in Laguna Beach, omitted the first name and title of a person quoted only as Frank. The person who expressed confidence that the city's brush clearance was legal and not a threat to the plant is Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank.

Unlike the spotted owl or the California desert tortoise -- threatened superstars with reputations for slowing development, the crownbeard is something of a bit player. It only grows in two places, neither of which would be confused with pristine wilderness or majestic national parkland.

In northwestern Baja California, the little plant grows on a fast-developing stretch of coastline south of Tijuana. And on the steep coastal canyons and slopes in south Laguna Beach, the plant blooms among mansions, next to a planned golf resort and in a dangerous fire zone.

Just a few thousand or so plants sprout from the rugged terrain, a sliver of Orange County as it once was. But in a region where progress rules -- often in the form of suburbs and strip malls -- the crownbeard endures.

"Just to think that there's this plant that [was] thought to be extinct just a few hundred feet from someone's backyard -- that's pretty neat," said Andrew Willis, district enforcement analyst with the California Coastal Commission.

Some of the shrubby plants grow on 326 acres of chaparral-covered land owned by the Athens Group, a luxury developer that hopes to eventually build eight homes near Driftwood Drive. The property is near the aging Aliso Creek Inn, which the firm plans to raze to make way for a new hotel, spa and upgraded nine-hole golf course.

But environmentalists say the Athens Group, which built the plush Montage Laguna Beach resort, already has a poor track record with the crownbeard.

In 2005, the developer violated the California Coastal Act by ripping out more than 1,300 square feet of crownbeard, a move that the company said was an accident. More recently, state coastal regulators and environmental advocates have complained that the Athens Group is stalling on fulfilling the commission's order to restore the plants; the developer was forced to pay a $500 daily penalty for more than two months until it sowed new crownbeard seeds.

"What they need to do . . . " said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's coastal programs, "is quit monkeying around and wasting time trying to build mansions on top of these rare plants."

Fred Roberts, a rare-plant coordinator for the California Native Plant Society and a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist, estimates that more than half of the local crownbeard has disappeared since 1980, and can no longer be found in neighboring Dana Point, where it once grew.

"It's actually some strange miracle that it hasn't been cleared more," he said of the plant, which is listed by the state and federal governments as threatened.

The Athens Group spokeswoman Joan Gladstone said that a biologist had flagged most of the sensitive areas, and that the 1,300 square feet were cleared inadvertently. Gladstone added that the company has cleared undergrowth in conjunction with Laguna Beach fire officials in response to residents' requests.

Willis, the coastal enforcement analyst, checks on the delicate little blossom periodically, and says that scientists working for the Athens Group have dutifully tagged the plants to ensure that crews leave a wide swath around them.

"Certainly there's always a chance of an errant Weedwhacker," he said. "I think good steps have been taken to avoid that."

But sometimes efforts to trim around the crownbeard can be harmful; the plants generally need brush shading to grow. Cutting down nearby vegetation "has a really significant degrading effect on habitat, even when you try to do it sensitively," Coastal Commission ecologist John Dixon said.

In Laguna Beach, more than three-quarters of the plants grow on private land. You can spot a few, marked with fluorescent orange tape, through a rusty chain-link fence marking Athens property. Most grow in Baja, where development also looms, and, according to Roberts, there is little environmental oversight.

"It's sort of the epicenter species," Roberts said. "This is like the classic example of the conflict that we have of species that occur on the urban fringe."

After the devastating wildfires of 1993, Laguna Beach officials reestablished a historical firebreak in the hills above town, using machines and goats to trim the brush. More recently, scientists were brought in to make sure that work crews and goats didn't destroy any endangered or protected vegetation.

"There's no sensitive stuff being cut down," Frank said. "There are no rare endangered species being touched -- that's why there's a monitor out there."

But ever vigilant, environmental advocates accuse Laguna Beach officials of enabling the company by clearing land in the name of fire safety. They cite photographs of cleared brush piles as evidence.

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