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Beachwood site tranquil one year later

City awaits new wetlands study

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Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 12:00 am

Around this time last year, Half Moon Bay leaders paid $18 million and took possession of the property known as Beachwood — effectively laying to rest the biggest political, legal and financial struggle in the city’s history.

Now, one year later, little has changed on the 24-acre property on the north end of town, although the issue remains a figurative lightning rod for the community.

City leaders remain intent on their plans to someday sell the property, possibly to a residential developer, as a way to help pay off the city’s bond debts. However, that goal remains in the idea phase, and the city has announced no official bids and made no public effort to court any sale.

In contrast to the rapid-fire events surrounding the property in the past, Beachwood has now become as tranquil as it appears — a grassy stretch of pastoral land. For the first time in years, city leaders have no incentive to rush decisions on the property, and the only deadline looming over the land remains about four years away, when the city has an opportunity to pay off some bonds early.

“It took us a long time to get in this terrible situation, and it’ll take us a long time to get out,” said Councilman John Muller. “(One year later), I don’t look at it as an anniversary. I like to look at it as life goes on.”

For approximately the last decade, Half Moon Bay was embroiled in lawsuits with Palo Alto developer Charles Keenan over the Beachwood property. In 2008, the City Council majority opted to settle with Keenan for $18 million or the long-shot possibility of getting an environmental exemption allowing development on Beachwood. That legislative effort failed, along with two later bills in Sacramento that would have loaned Half Moon Bay $10 million and turned Beachwood into a public park. 

Forced to pay the full settlement sum, the city issued $15 million in bonds, which it planned to pay off with interest over the next 30 years in $1.12 million increments. Saddled with the debt, elected officials say their plan is to recoup as much money as possible from the Beachwood property, which the city took over after paying Keenan.

To prepare the property for future sale, the city hired the biologists at Michael Brandman Associates last year to reassess the wetlands on the property. Environmentally

protected under state law, wetlands have been central for years of legal disputes between city officials and Keenan. Both the city and Keenan have commissioned multiple wetlands studies of the property as a way to determine how valuable the land would be as a residential subdivision.

The Brandman firm has already visited the site multiple times to analyze the property during different weather conditions, but it has not submitted a final report to the city yet.

City Attorney Tony Condotti said the new study probably wouldn’t contain any surprises and would be similar to the previous studies. He assured the wetlands study would be rigorous and not designed to maximize the development value.

“We wanted to get a study that wasn’t prepared in the context of litigation,” he said. “We’re going with the most conservative, broadest reading of wetlands under the Coastal Commission definitions.

“I don’t expect more than a small portion will be inundated with wetlands,” he said.

City officials expect wetlands to be in about the same spots as before, but they could allow a developer to build homes much closer to protected watersheds than before. Half Moon Bay officials previously mandated that a 100-foot buffer separate wetlands from any development. Condotti said the need for a buffer zone of that distance was “debatable.”

“The real argument here is how to interpret regulations,” he said. “I would doubt that development would go right up to wetlands, but you might see it closer than 100 feet.”

Last year, the city planned to fence off the Beachwood property and employ additional security measures on the site. City Manager Michael Dolder said those measures were pushed back a year and could begin in the coming months.

For now, perhaps the biggest change for Beachwood has been its name. City staff and council members no longer refer to the 24-acre site as “Beachwood,” saying the name was a development title that no longer applies to the property. Time will tell whether the new name they’re using for the land, “Cabrillo Highway Property,” takes root in the city that Beachwood divided.

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