How New Developments in Laguna Beach Will (and Won't) Deal With the Pollution in Aliso Creek

Up Sick Creek
How new developments in Laguna Beach will (and won't) deal with the pollution from Aliso Creek

Nine years ago, in a Weekly article titled "The Anus of Aliso Viejo," Matt Coker described the pollution levels in Aliso Creek, which flows from Modjeska Canyon to the ocean at Laguna Beach. It was, he said at that time, "a constant flow of urban runoff . . . pesticides, herbicides, dog shit, people shit and stuff you really don't want to know about."

Since then, not much has changed. Well, sort of. According to South Laguna Civic Association board member Mike Beanan, who gets in the ocean every week and swims underwater to see the damage for himself, "Dry-weather flow has gone from about 1.5 million gallons a day to 5 million gallons a day. . . . Hundreds of sea lions have died, and we've lost a lot of our kelp forests."

Aliso Canyon, through which the creek flows, is the site of ongoing developments by the Athens Group, a self-described "full-service real estate development company specializing in the development of upscale resort communities, luxury resort hotels, golf courses and related recreational properties." With the help of several million dollars in taxpayer money, it previously developed the Montage Resort & Spa and Treasure Island Park, where mobile homes once stood until Merrill Lynch bought the land and upped the rent, as chronicled by our own R. Scott Moxley, once again, nine years ago.

Now the Athens Group want to do more development on the Aliso Creek property, practically across the street from the Montage, and are presenting that project as environmentally sensitive. A "fact sheet" provided to media reads, "Our vision is to create a place for people to step back in time and get back to nature. We envision creating a natural and cultural sanctuary, a place to dwell, a refuge." Among the proposed developments:

• 250 acres designated as open space;

• A new inn, spa and series of cottages designed for a total capacity of 72 guests;

• A storm-water-quality management plan;

• Modification of the existing golf course and construction of a new practice facility; and

• A new subterranean parking structure with 507 spaces.

On May 10, Athens held an open house for the public to see the canyon and look at the group's plans; members of the public were free to take either the guided tour, or just walk anywhere they wanted. An article in the Laguna Beach Independent by William Hagle describes the crowd as mostly "polite" and "awed by the natural beauty," and it describes Athens vice president John Mansour talking about his intentions to protect the hillside and sensitive areas.

Last Monday, residents of Laguna Beach packed council chambers at Laguna Beach City Hall for a scoping hearing, technically an optional part of the process that Athens representative Jim Montgomery says he felt was appropriate "to solicit comments about environmental impacts, alternatives and objectives." Kevin Grant, project manager for the consulting firm PMC, hired by the city to prepare an environmental-impact report (EIR) on the project, told the crowd it was not his job to oppose or advocate a project, but to provide public disclosure of likely environmental impact.

As Grant's associates took notes on two giant note pads, 44 locals (estimated median age: 65) took turns at the microphone to express what they felt should be included in the EIR. Some comments seemed frivolous, like those of a red-faced gentleman who offered self-deprecating jokes about his golf game before complaining that the new course had holes that were too short for him to play without endangering others. Many of the rest were aesthetic: The new buildings will be too tall, block views, increase traffic. Others suggested that the proposed practice area be moved closer to the actual course, rather than using land farther up the canyon.

Far more noteworthy—"surprising" would be somewhat of an understatement, "shocking" only slightly hyperbolic—than what was said at that meeting, is what wasn't. Despite the fact that many locals clearly aren't happy about the concept of turning Aliso Creek into a backdrop for yet another South County resort spa and golf course and have legitimate concerns about the Athens Group's track record, none of the speakers managed to contradict the company's central claim that it will ultimately improve the quality of the creek. In fact, some of the people most involved in trying to clean up Aliso Creek say that this could be one of the rare examples of real-estate development in Orange County actually helping an endangered ecosystem.

*   *   *

Three days earlier, local activists Michael Hazzard and Roger Butow took the Weekly on a short walking tour of Aliso Creek, or at least the public part of it leading out of the golf course and into the sea.

Butow, a 60-ish ex-Marine with a showman-like quality, is a self-styled expert on watersheds, having attended, by his count, "over 100 watershed conferences and workshops." He used to give "Toxic Soup Tours" of pollution hot spots in and around Laguna and South County, until it became too dangerous to do so; nowadays, he says, he'll only give the full tour if we wear rubber gloves and boots and get a Hepatitis A vaccination first. He has with him a T-shirt for his organization, the Clean Aliso Creek Association—whose acronym, he says, has kept him from appearing on certain TV broadcasts.

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