Their Ocean

Can wealthy developers and business execs do for the environment what grassroots activists havent?

Photo by Tenaya HillsThey spell the name of their new environmental organization "miocean," but they pronounce it pretty much the way you'd expect a monied cluster of Orange County land developers and business executives to say it: "my ocean." They believe they can use a big-business approach—big money, high technology and political connections—to rescue OC's dying coastline.

"We walk into a local government agency with a project, a solution and a check," says Jeff Bizzack, who heads miocean's fund-raising engine. "We say, 'Here's some money. Let's see what kind of other funding we can secure, and let's get this thing done.'"

It's a nifty trick, the kind that developers use all the time to get the government to help foot the bill for things—like roads and sewers and gas and electric hookups—that make their projects much more profitable. In other words, it's basically the recipe that cooked OC's waterfront into such a disaster in the first place.

"Lots of people might say, 'Hey, you guys kind of started some of these environmental problems!'" Bizzack acknowledges. "I don't know about that, but I am confident we have the guys with the expertise to fix some of these problems. Who better than business people and developers to understand the intricacies of state and federal law, to have a grip on the technology, to wade through the incredible regulations that so often keep things from getting done?"

The answer Bizzack is pointing you to: nobody.

"Miocean is an organization of very serious businessmen," says Bizzack, "with a very specific agenda of environmental projects."

And when the people in miocean say "my ocean," they mean it. "We don't want more members," says Bizzack, among miocean's 16-man-and-two-woman roster. "If somebody wants to donate $25 to our cause . . . well, that really isn't something we are interested in, either."

Bizzack doesn't say this with sass. His tone is one of practiced, facts-of-life resignation—the kind bosses use to explain that you've been axed for the greater good of the company.

Bizzack made his money as co-founder of ProBusiness Services Inc., which helps large businesses replace in-house employees with cheaper "outsourced" workers. Now the Laguna Beach resident wants to be able to surf local spots without swimming in crap. That's more or less the personal story of most of miocean's members—including such heretofore unknown OC environmentalists as Craig Atkins of the huge land brokerage company O'Donnell/Atkins; George Peterson of the construction management companies Project Dimensions and Golf Dimensions; Pat Fuscoe of Fuscoe Engineering; Keith Ross of wide-ranging Centra Realty Corporation; and Paul Makarechian, whose MAKAR Properties has developed more than $2 billion in resorts, including the massive St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa in Dana Point.

These young-to-middle-aged South County millionaires spend their days generating housing tracts, shopping centers, business parks and vacation resorts. They say they like to spend their days off hiking and biking and surfing in wide-open, natural spaces. But they have discovered that money can no longer buy anybody a place to hide from OC's pervasive pollution.

Well, not yet. That's where miocean comes in. Its roster of movers and shakers—and most importantly, moneymakers—enables it to go places that many other grassroots environmental groups cannot reach. The business community, for instance. "There are a lot of grassroots environmental organizations out there, but they haven't been able to bridge the gap to the masses," says Makarechian, who at 29 has risen to CEO of his family's MAKAR Properties. "One of the shortcomings is that they haven't penetrated the business community to tap into a fund-raising point. They never looked at the environment as a problem that needed a business solution. Instead, they have confronted business, and consequently lots of business people have always feared environmentalists."

Miocean doesn't face that hurdle. "When I raise money for miocean's projects, I go out to dinner with people who can give between $25,000 and $50,000 per person," says Bizzack. "I sit across the table from the leaders of a multitude of successful corporations. Having an organization with lots of members making lots of small contributions—well, it wouldn't be worth the time it would take to administer it."

The clout of miocean's membership also translates into access to the inner circle of OC's government agencies. "Politicians are very important to us," says Bizzack, pointing out that Representative Chris Cox and Supervisor Tom Wilson are members of miocean's advisory board.

Eighteen months after its formation, miocean has just completed its first project—on Doheny State Beach, where the contaminated outflow from North Creek has collected on the sand for so long that most locals grew up calling it "Polio Pond." The scuzzy water is being diverted to a nearby sanitation plant at a cost of $1.3 million. Miocean's next plan is to lead the cleanup of Salt Creek in Dana Point. Estimated cost: $4.6 million.

That's an impressive result and an ambitious plan. But the rich people in miocean aren't being completely fair to nickel-and-dime, grassroots organizations when they boast about their "business" approach to environmental solutions. Most of the money for miocean's projects will come from government agencies—in other words, from taxes paid by not-so-rich people whose contributions and opinions miocean says it doesn't have time to consider. In the case of the Doheny State Beach project, for example, miocean kicked in $100,000 and then milked the rest of the funding from the public coffers of Dana Point, Orange County, the South Coast Water District and the State Water Resources Control Board.

Makarechian says this kind of coalition building is precisely what makes miocean critical to OC's environmental future. "So many of these problems are cross-jurisdictional, so that one city or agency cannot solve them alone," he says. "That's the value of our team's expertise. We come up with plans that work."

That's encouraging, although the track record of these public/private, government/developer partnerships has not always shown benefit to the environment. To some, miocean's rustic-looking press kit—with the understated lower-case logo presented on ridged cardboard by the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather's Beverly Hills office—looks like it hides wolves in printed-on-recycled-paper-with-soy-ink clothing. They suspect miocean is just the same OC good-old-boys network, using these cleanup projects to protect current investments and justify further development down the road.

"They are just eco-frontmen, shills for the St. Regis," charges Roger von Butow, the longtime local environmental warrior who heads the Clean Water Now! Coalition. "They are wing-tipped, armchair semi-activists. They have some faux enviros but are committed to Republican politicos in Dana Point."

The story goes that miocean was founded by Dana Point attorney John Moody after he contracted a serious staph infection while surfing at Doheny Beach; most members of miocean live along the South County coastline. Further, the future of some of OC's most valuable resort property is threatened by water pollution in the area.

"The St. Regis and the Ritz-Carlton are freaked by pollution coming at them from both sides," von Butow points out. "San Juan Creek and Salt Creek are both toast."

Then again, one of the biggest obstacles to environmentalism is the misconception that it is, or ought to be, based on altruism. The best environmentalism is the highest form of selfishness—what could be more self-centered than demanding clean water, air and earth?—which may be the point that miocean is mining in its own dollars-and-cents way.

"When a beach is closed by pollution, it has an impact on income," says Bizzack, "in addition to the health of kids and families."

For more information contact miocean, 3 Park Plaza, Suite 1490, Irvine, 92614. (949) 252-2853. www.miocean.org.

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