After about an hour of discussion, the California Coastal Commission approved a project permit for Crystal Cove State Park last week.
While meeting in Newport Beach council chambers, the CCC voted 7-4 to approve the application from the California State Parks and Recreation, with commissioners Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas, Martha McClure and Gregory Cox dissenting.
The Los Trancos parking lot project will “replace one 24 ft. x 60 ft. modular structure with two 24 ft. x 60 ft. modular structures, grading, retaining walls, wood deck/outdoor classroom, coastal sage scrub mitigation plan, ADA access improvements and re-paving and re-striping of asphalt parking lot adding 40 additional parking spaces,” according to the staff report.
The main issue raised by the proposal is the installation of the modular structures within areas that is close sage scrub habitat, staff explained. The CCC biologist identified that habitat as “environmentally sensitive” because it is occupied by the endangered California gnatcatcher.
The buildings don’t need to be placed in the sensitive habitat area, staff reported, there are other locations that can work and provide the needed service and still allow for maximized parking.
In order to minimize adverse impacts to coastal sage scrub, staff included special conditions that requires the applicant to submit a revised project plan depicting the pre-fabricated modular structures proposed to be used as Interpretive Programs Classroom and State Parks Sector Office/Meeting Space within the paved surface of the Crystal Cove Los Trancos Parking Lot.
“I think that our staff has very clearly defined that the park has ESHA (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas) and that the modules would be best served in the parking lot,” said commissioner Carole Groom.
State Park officials were seeking approval without special condition one, which addresses the location of the modular buildings.
“As a public service entity and a mission driven organization, state parks is seeking to facilitate public health, inspiration and education for all Californians and visitors,” said Crystal Cove State Park Superintendent Todd Lewis. “In order to fulfill those commitments, we need to have sufficient access and adequate facilities.”
The facility is “aging and inadequate,” Lewis said.
The applicant also proposed mitigation for impacts to the coastal sage scrub habitat. They also argued that parking is important for public access and that there is also high demand for interpretive program and the classroom and office space is needed.
Commissioners asked about the impact on the gnatcatcher’s habitat, gnatcatcher policy on future projects, restoration, history and more.
Gnatcatchers forage there, but they don’t nest there, said Crystal Cove environmental scientist Lana Meade. They nest in the canyon, she added.
They were observed within the project footprint, said Sherilyn Sarb, CCC Orange County Deputy Director. That’s the most compelling concern, she added.
“Our job is to respect to the maximum amount possible the provisions for ESHA,” said commission chair Steve Kinsey and supported the staff recommendation.
Staff did their due diligence, CCC Executive Director Charles Lester said.
This is a feasible alternative that works with the strong policy for environmentally sensitive habitat areas and still provides public access, he said.
“It is a great balance between public access and protection of habitat,” Lester said.