Not far from the din of cars along Pacific Coast Highway, buffered by bluffs, eucalyptus trees and tall grasses, a flock of 40 rare black skimmers fly low over still ponds, their open beaks trolling the brackish waters of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, California's largest remaining coastal salt marsh.
The black-and-white, crow-sized birds found along the Mexican coast and the Salton Sea have joined an array of wildlife that make its home in the wetlands, unaffected as yet by the battle raging in San Francisco and in the halls of government in Orange County over the fate of this sprawling 1,600-acre expanse of dunes, marshes, oil wells and vacant mesas.
In November, the California Coastal Commission certified a massive development plan for a 1,300-slip marina surrounded by eateries, hotels and shops, and an exclusive waterfront residential community in exchange for an ocean entrance and restoration of 915 acres to fully productive wetlands habitat.
Now that compromise--hammered out after more than a decade of struggle among developers, environmentalists and state and local officials--is foundering on just when and how much of those wetlands will be restored in the myriad phases of the multimillion-dollar project, state and local officials say.
Unless an agreement is reached on this and other issues in last-minute negotiations today in San Francisco, the amended Local Coastal Plan for Bolsa Chica that the county Board of Supervisors will vote on Wednesday may well be tossed out or rewritten by the Coastal Commission later this year.
"It is our fervent hope (that) the county can present a plan that we don't have to make any modifications to," said Thomas A. Crandall, director for the commission's Southern California coastal region.
"What we are trying to do is get some language into the plan the county adopts that is consistent with the action the commission took in 1984," Crandall said. "Where we can obtain the same objectives, whether with different wording, we will try to accommodate them."
Just in case, on the same day supervisors are expected to vote, the staff of the 11-member Coastal Commission will ask for an extension of a six-month deadline for Orange County to submit its amended plan, Crandall said.
However, environmentalists fear that the county and the major landowner, Signal Landmark Inc., are merely stalling for time until strong environmentalists on the commission are replaced, said Lorraine Faber, spokeswoman for Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a group that has worked since the mid-1970s to protect the area, one of the state's last remaining coastal salt marshes.
The Bolsa Chica is home to the endangered least tern, Belding's Savannah sparrow and the burrowing owl, and is a way station for migrating ducks, herons, geese and hundreds of other birds and fish. It is bordered by Huntington Harbour and the city of Huntington Beach and Pacific Coast Highway.
Once the home of the Gabrieleno Indians, the Bolsa Chica consisted of bluffs, lowlands covered with pickleweed and grasses and an estuary bordered by thriving saltwater marshes. In 1795, it became part of a huge Spanish land grant. By the mid-19th Century, the mesas and bluffs overlooking the wetlands were partitioned for farming and cattle ranching.
Dam Changed Wetlands
In 1895, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club changed the course of history by building an upstream dam across the waterway called Freeman Creek, eventually causing the ocean entrance to become a huge sand bar. No longer did the flushing tidal action nourish the marshes. No longer did water move downstream to create the unique wildlife habitat that occurs wherever freshwater mixes with saltwater.
As the swampy marshes dried up, more land was plowed under for farming. Then came the encroachment of urban development and the appearance of oil rigs in the 1930s. Signal bought nearly 2,000 acres of the Bolsa Chica in 1970 but fought with the state over scattered lowland areas considered state-owned tidelands.
In 1973, a settlement was reached giving the state title to 330 acres on the lowlands, plus more than 27 acres below the highway adjacent to Bolsa Chica State Beach. The state Department of Fish and Game was given a 66-year lease for marsh restoration of the area now known as the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
A levee built in 1978 brings some tidal flushing, but more is needed to restore the salt marshes to their former quality.
Signal leased another 230 acres to the state, to be deeded to the preserve for wetlands restoration when an ocean entrance was installed. A battle over development of the remaining wetlands acreage continued until the Coastal Commission certified a compromise plan last Nov. 29.
The plan called for 915 acres of fully restored wetlands habitat, the marina and a maximum of 5,700 dwelling units, plus shopping, hotel and restaurant facilities.
The commission endorsed as a "preferred plan" a proposal to cut a navigable channel 600 to 900 feet wide through Bolsa Chica State Beach to the ocean, providing tidal flushing for wetlands restoration and access to the marina and channels.
But due to concern over adequate funding for the project, estimated at $49 million, and possible beach erosion by breakwaters and jetties, the commission insisted on a fallback option of a non-navigable channel.
Despite weeks of hearings and meetings among county planners, the developer and state officials on the proposed county Local Coastal Plan, commission staff members objected to language on the non-navigable channel study in the draft passed last week by the county Planning Commission.
Disagreement Remains on Some Issues
Marathon negotiations last Wednesday led to compromise on some issues, said spokespersons for the parties--the county, the commission and Signal. However, disagreement remains on protection and phasing of wetlands restoration, among other policy language.
Orange County contends that it may be necessary to drop below a required minimum of 852 acres of existing wetlands from time to time in order to construct an ocean channel, a network of roads, bridges and other capital projects and complete the restoration.
If that is so--and commission staff members have not conceded the point--state officials and environmentalists want to know exactly how many acres and for how long.
Ronald L. Tippets, the county's project manager for Bolsa Chica, said the solution is to allow total wetlands acreage to fall below the minimum only if the commission, the state Coastal Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game approve.
"We're not saying we ever have to go below 852 acres," said Tippets. "But in case we do, we need that flexibility. . . . We are saying, 'With you guys involved all along the way, how could this thing get away from you?' "
'Fine-Tuning' Left to Do
Darlene Frost, Signal's project manager for Bolsa Chica, said negotiating parties have so far "agreed to disagree" on the acreage issue. She said today's meeting at the commission's headquarters in San Francisco would center on "fine-tuning the policy language" in the Local Coastal Plan.
However, Crandall said the acreage issue and other differences could still be resolved. "I think we are working toward a compromise. Our hope is that by quitting time we will have all the issues resolved and be able to recommend (that) the commission approve this document," he said.
In any case, supervisors are likely to hear plenty of local opposition to parts of the Local Coastal Plan at Wednesday's public hearing.
Faber said the Amigos group remains concerned about possible damage a navigable channel would do to Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington state and city beaches.
"The county's Local Coastal Plan says sand erosion will be mitigated to insignificant levels, but the mitigation isn't described," Faber said. "They don't say how it'll be done, they just say it will be done, trust us."
Some Huntington Beach residents remain concerned about the width of a roadway to be built through the area and its distance from their homes. Tippets said the exact course cannot be determined without further study, but it will be at least 500 to 900 feet from existing homes.
The trouble, Tippets said, is that everyone wants specifics on development plans that are, at best, years from final approval and completion.
If a Local Coastal Plan is approved by supervisors and passed by the commission this summer, Tippets said final commission approval could take at least three more years. In the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers must conduct feasibility studies, and other federal agencies must give approvals.
"It will be easily 15 years before you see anything out there. Three years ago, Signal said it would definitely be into the 21st Century before the project is finished," Tippets said. "The reality is, by the time (Bolsa Chica) is developed and all the wetlands restored, we aren't even going to be around."