Council denies appeal of Ranch Restoration Plan

By BARBARA DIAMOND

The City Council unanimously denied an appeal on Tuesday of the Planning Commission’s approval of a restoration plan proposed for The Ranch.

Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge did not blame the commission for its decision. He blamed the city staff.

“The Planning Commission did the best they could,” Fudge said in his five-minute presentation to the council. “Staff abused their discretion.”

Fudge based his appeal on six grounds: 

--Insufficient notice of the Planning Commission meeting 

--Categorical exemption from California Environmental Quality Act requirements

--Non-compliance with the city’s General Plan, including six specific policies

--No consultation with other agencies interested in the project

--Failure to consider a recent court decision which defined the scope of the project and required further work to be subject to CEQA.

Staff provided a lengthy defense of its position, claiming in its report that the grounds for the appeal were speculative and unfounded. The report further stated that Fudge provided no proof that the Planning Commission erred or abused its discretion in approving the plan, required findings to overturn a commission decision.

Design review, in this case conducted by the Planning Commission, is required for proposed native vegetation restoration plans. 

The restoration plan proposed by the Ranch was designed to mitigate what Coastal Commissioners had previously determined “were unauthorized tree trimming/vegetation removal activities in Aliso Creek” and the impacts from the removal of downed vegetation from the creek bank due to the January 2017 storms, according to a letter from The Ranch representative.

“The Planning Commission rubber-stamped a California Coastal Commission decision,” said Sharon Fudge, the appellant’s wife. 

He had also claimed the restoration did not qualify for the California Environmental Quality Act’s ”small habitat restoration” categorical exemption.

The exemption applies to projects that do not exceed five acres to ensure the protection of habitat for fish, plants or wildlife. 

“This project will affect the entire 19 miles of the stream,” said Sharon Fudge. 

However reviews of the project by a Coastal Commission ecologist, the Ranch’s ecologist, the commission and city staff determined the project affects 4.83 acres of restoration. 

Fudge declined to comment on the council’s decision or any further action he might take.