Beach Reach

Public access jeopardized at Crystal Cove

Photo by Keith MayIt's been a good summer for the Irvine Co., Orange County's largest private land owner. A few weeks ago, county supervisors allowed the firm to stick local taxpayers with potentially disastrous liability for the cliffs surrounding the company's exclusive gated Newport Coast housing project. Now there's news that the company will act on an unpublicized deal to take back part of a beach it sold to the state's taxpayers for nearly $33 million.

And people are pissed. On Sunday—two decades after the state paid the Irvine Co. a record amount for what is today Crystal Cove State Park —environmentalists will gather to do something they never thought they'd have to do: plead to keep public all of the taxpayer-owned park.

Unbeknownst to anyone but high-ranking politicians, bureaucrats and, of course, Irvine Co. officials, the fine print on the 1979 Crystal Cove deal effectively allows parts of the park to be bulldozed to make way for a privately owned hotel. Flipping the concept of public access on its head, the proposed beachfront resort will be available to anyone who can afford to pay about $500 per night for a room. The project developer—the Irvine Co.-tied and ironically named Crystal Cove Preservation Partners—would also have the power to privatize a key section of the public beach. It now seems obvious why then-Irvine Co. president Peter Kremer observed how "naturally very pleased" company officials were with the deal.

The company's enthusiasm for the commercial privatization of the historic 1,800-acre park between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach isn't universal.

"The Irvine Co. is so big and so mean it looks like they've been able to take back land they've already gotten state money for," said Jeannette Merrilees, who is spearheading Save Crystal Cove —a coalition that includes the Sierra Club; Friends of Harbors, Beaches & Parks; Women for Orange County; Laguna Greenbelt; Laguna Canyon Conservancy; Village Laguna; Stop Polluting Our Newport; and the Surfrider Foundation. "It's just so inappropriate. This was supposed to be a public park, and they are slowly taking it away."

During the years when Republicans Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson controlled the governor's office, perhaps no business received more political favors than the Irvine Co., which regularly sends the GOP contributions in $50,000 and even $100,000 chunks. Such a relationship might help explain why, according to Merrilees, Crystal Cove became the only state park exempted from concessionaire laws. Concessions—businesses allowed to operate at the state park—can be lucrative. When Crystal Cove State Park was created, the Irvine Co. was effectively given the right to control all of the park's concession contracts for terms of 10 years—twice as long as state law allowed. Soon after, state legislators extended concession contracts for the state's park system to 20-year terms. In 1996—as plans for a private resort at Crystal Cove were in the works—the company hit the jackpot. Legislators slipped into law a provision that allowed concessions at Crystal Cove for up to 60 years—a term that makes building a private resort at the state beach extremely profitable.

"It was all done very quietly—without a single public hearing," said Merrilees. "The public was betrayed."

Merrilees and others stop short of calling Sunday's gathering a "protest" rally. "We just want people to come to the park, to enjoy it and see what a precious treasure it is for the public. Hopefully, the issue will go onto Governor [Gray] Davis' radar screen, and he'll at least push for public hearings. When the public learns what is happening here, nobody will support it."

Save Crystal Cove meets at Crystal Cove State Park, 8471 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-7647. Sun., 1 p.m. Free; parking, $6.
 
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