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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fate of Last Chunk of Orange County's Bolsa Chica Wetlands is Decided by Coastal Commission

(above) Tract Map Approved by the Commission

Staff-Recommended Tract Map (Rejected by Commission)

Shea got some of what they wanted, we got some of
what we wanted; and it looks like maybe this was
a true split decision:

Shea is now estimating they have 25 acres to build on,
once you factor in the NTS out of a buffer and the VFPF.
That would leave 25 acres open, though not all of it
conserved (the NTS & VFPF aren't leaving
the land fallow).

Is that enough to make the project "viable" in
Shea's eyes? Will be interesting to see...
--Julie Bixby

To read more:

More details emerge on HB Parkside decision

Bolsa Chica Land Trust representatives said they still won a good chunk of wetlands but are now seriously considering legal recourse.

The Orange County Register

HUNTINGTON BEACH Now that the dust has started to settle, it appears that the California Coastal Commission will allow Shea Homes to build on about half the land they own, the developer's representatives reported Thursday.

The decision made late Wednesday leaves both the developer and environmental activists opposed to the project disappointed and pondering their next move.

Shea officials said the Coastal Commission essentially granted them 25 acres to build on.

The developer had planned to build a 170-home community called Parkside Estates on a 50-acre parcel of land near one of the county's last wetlands.

After Wednesday's decision, it's now unclear how many homes Shea will construct, said Shea Homes spokesman Laer Pearce.

"It was a big mistake," he said of the commission designating some of the land wetlands.

After a more than six-hour hearing in San Diego, both sides were left wondering how much they truly lost or gained for their cause because commissioners voted separately on certain sections of the land and designated some areas wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas while determining others were not.

What is clear is that some of the commissioners disagreed with a November report prepared by their staff. The staff recommended slashing a proposal to 19 acres, stating that a good portion of the Shea Homes land is wetlands or environmentally sensitive areas for habitat that is protected.

Probably the two most contentious areas were two sections – a 0.95-acre patch and another 4-acre swath of land. Environmentalist and the commission's staff said the areas were wetlands. The developer vehemently disagreed.

Commissioners voted that the 0.95-acre portion was not a wetland and open to development.

"I went out there today to kind of say goodbye," said environmental activist Julie Bixby, who visited the area Thursday morning. "It was a bit sad."

Commissioner Dan Secord wanted the rest of his colleagues to vote against calling a separate 4-acre parcel a wetland, opening it up for development. None of the commissioners, however, agreed to take it up for a vote, killing the motion.

The 4-acre swath, protected by a 100-foot buffer is a major win for environmental activists -- most members of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.

"We're happy that the … wetland was able to survive the slash-and-burn approach that the coastal commission took to staff recommendations. That's a major benefit," said Flossie Horgan, the land trust's executive director.

One of the biggest losses for Shea opponents, however, was when the Coastal Commission voted to reduce a 100-meter buffer to a 160-foot minimum variable buffer to protect what staff called an environmentally sensitive area for birds of prey.

The major source of debate at the hearing was whether Shea Homes moved large portions of dirt around the land to intentionally cover up wetlands under the guise of farming.

Those allegations were also raised by an environmental watchdog group in a lawsuit filed against Shea in Orange County Superior Court. A judge delayed the case until December, hoping the commission would decide the matter first.

Shea Homes Vice President Ron Metzler told commissioners that the farmer who rented the land was following normal farming practices.

Horgan said the land trust will meet soon and consider legal action against Wednesday's decision.

"Absolutely, because you can't destroy wetlands and you can't make them disappear under the guise of farming," Horgan said. "You cannot use farming to destroy wetlands."



While over 1,200 acres of the wetlands have been saved from development, the adjacent upland areas are quickly vanishing due to residential development. The view is admittedly stunning. However, the devastation of the fragile ecosystem - as a result of urban runoff, household pets, and house and garden chemicals - will be permanent. The assault on Native American burials and gathering spots will be horrifying. The loss of habitat for native and migrating wildlife is irreplaceable. This treasured "Little Pocket" of old California culture and history will be lost forever.

While a broad-based community effort has held off this invasion, a final resolution is needed. The only way to permanently safeguard this last vestige of old California is to purchase the property for preservation. While the purchase of the Lower Bench of the Bolsa Chica Mesa was accomplished in 2005, acquisition efforts continue on the 50-acre Upper Bolsa Chica Wetlands, proposed for development by Shea Homes; and on the 6-acre Sacred Cogged Stone site, proposed for condominiums by its owner.

In 1973, as part of a controversial land swap, the State of California acquired approximately 300 acres of wetlands adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway. A portion of this was restored by the state in 1979 to become the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. The remaining acreage was retained in private hands. Planning for the construction of a massive marina, commercial and residential development was quickly underway. The plan was drastically reduced in 1989 through the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Amigos.

May 1997, SAN DIEGO JUDGE RULES IN FAVOR OF LAWSUIT PROTECTING BOLSA CHICA. Filed by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, Huntington Beach Tomorrow and the Shoshone GabrieleƱo Nation, the suit claimed the Coastal Commission erred in approving development in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, allowing Warner Pond to be filled, and approving the moving of the eucalyptus ESHA to the Huntington Mesa, and the court agreed.

(editor's note: The now-famous Bolsa Chica decision changed the way the Coastal Commission dealt with wetlands along the entire California Coast. Where previously wetlands could be filled-in and built upon as long as other wetlands were restored, the law was clarified to prohibit virtually any destruction of coastal wetlands. This has shifted the battle for wetland advocates to disputes over what is a wetland, as the battle over the remaining 50 acres at Parkside Bolsa Chica has shown. A similar battle occurred at the Ballona Wetlands in 2002 at the Marina Freeway)

In 1997 the state acquired 880 acres of Bolsa Chica wetlands and another 41 acres was acquired in 2005, bringing public ownership of the Bolsa Chica to over 1200 acres. Wetland restoration of nearly 600 acres of Bolsa Chica was begun in 2004.

In the summer of 2006 seawater flowed into the restored wetland for the first time in over 100 years. The Bolsa Chica wetland restoration was the largest coastal wetland restorations ever undertaken in Southern California.

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