A Decade of Wrangling : Opposing Sides Reach Accord on Bolsa Chica

Times Staff Writer

After more than a decade of wrangling over development of the Bolsa Chica coastal wetlands, opposing factions have reached terms that would ensure future restoration of much of the sprawling salt marsh, as well as buffers for sensitive habitats and study of a non-navigable ocean channel, officials said Wednesday.

Agreement among landowner Signal Bolsa Co., representatives for Orange County, the state Fish and Game Department and the California Coastal Commission comes as the commission prepares to vote next week on a development plan for a 1,300-slip marina and residential waterfront community on a 1,600-acre parcel near Huntington Beach.

"We think this is going to be a wonderful document," said Peter Xander, staff member of the commission that once appeared certain to block any development of one of California's last remaining coastal wetlands and home to several endangered species of birds.

"There is more to be done (but) this is a major hurdle being jumped," Signal spokesman Wayne Clark said Wednesday, referring to the myriad stages of the complex project, which is expected to take years of additional study and planning and 20 or 30 years to complete.

"We're hopeful, now that all parties have come to substantial agreement, that the (Coastal) Commission will vote accordingly," Clark said.

Can Recommend Approval

Xander said the commission staff can now recommend approval of terms agreed to Tuesday at a meeting of the parties in San Francisco. "I think we have finally come up with an agreement that will ensure the wetlands will be restored," he said.

If approval is granted, it would be one of several such steps that must take place before construction could begin. Any revised agreement still would have to be ratified by the Board of Supervisors and formally certified by the commission.

Last November, the Coastal Commission approved a plan to partially develop the marsh, sanctioning a 1,300-slip marina, restaurants, hotels, shops and waterfront homes in exchange for restoration of 915 acres to fully productive wetlands to be added to an existing 600-acre state refuge for birds and marine life.

Haggling Over Language

However, Signal representatives, county planners, the commission staff and state Fish and Game planners have been haggling over the precise language of the county's Local Coastal Program for the Bolsa Chica ever since.

On Tuesday, Xander said that Signal and county representatives finally agreed to link development of the upland area with restoration of the lowland areas to fully functioning wetlands.

It was an issue of prime concern to environmentalists, who have battled Signal ever since a subsidiary of the La Jolla company bought most of the 1,600 acres in 1970.

"We needed to ensure that it would be planned for as a single unit," Xander said. "If you were to develop the uplands without considering the lowland areas, there could be runoff, noise or other harmful effects that would demonstrably impact the wetlands."

The language agreed upon Tuesday calls for the landowner to assure that all restoration can be accomplished before any land division or construction permits can be issued for the project. The assurance could be in the form of a bond sufficient for restoration or conveying interest in the property to some group that would oversee the project.

Guaranteeing Restoration

This was seen as a means of guaranteeing that restoration would occur regardless of who owned the Bolsa Chica property or whether it was subdivided for development.

"This plan is going to take a long time to implement and there is no guarantee it (the property) will remain under one owner," Xander said.

Clark said on Wednesday that Signal "has no intention to sell at this time," adding that rumors abounding in recent months that company officials were discussing such a sale were "categorically not true."

"There are no negotiations or talks going on, or being contemplated," Clark said.

Another issue settled Tuesday was agreement on 100-foot-wide buffer zones around the central wetlands area and potentially smaller buffers around other areas to protect environmentally sensitive habitats from nearby construction. The agreement includes a commitment to create new sand dunes to replace any that would be removed or destroyed in development.

No Oil Well Relocation

At the request of the Fish and Game Department, which manages the existing refuge, language was added to clarify that no oil wells now in the salt marsh can be relocated in restored areas.

The last major hurdle, according to Xander, was a commitment to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been studying the feasibility of dredging a navigable ocean entrance, also examine a non-navigable channel. County officials and the developer have insisted that development would not be cost-effective without a fully navigable channel.

The commission will consider the modified agreement when it meets in Marina del Rey next Wednesday.

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