Faced with concern over funding for wetlands restoration, Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) on Monday postponed until next year controversial legislation affecting Orange County's environmentally sensitive Bolsa Chica wetlands.
"We did a lot of soul-searching," Bergeson said of her bill, which would create a privately controlled special district to govern the early stages of a proposed marina and residential development in the marshlands next to Huntington Beach.
"Rather than being expedient at this point, we feel it's more important for us to have a piece of legislation that is credible and has the substance to get the job done. That's going to make everyone feel comfortable," she said.
The bill, SB 1517, now will become a "two-year bill," meaning that it will not be heard until after Jan. 1.
The landowner, Signal Landmark Inc., had hoped to win approval for the bill in order to improve its chances of getting a $44.8-million federal loan to help with construction of a $90-million navigable ocean channel to connect the 1,200-acre parcel to the ocean. Signal has long wanted the channel as a key element in the development, which would include 5,700 residential units, a 1,300-slip marina, hotels, restaurants and open-space recreation.
But environmentalists have objected that a navigable channel would take the most valuable wetlands, which are used as feeding and nesting grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife.
Under a 1985 agreement with the California Coastal Commission, Signal may go forward with its development in return for restoring 915 acres of wetlands and turning them over to the state.
Although Signal has said it would finance the restoration, environmentalists have been concerned that full funding for the costly project was not provided for in Bergeson's bill. In response to these concerns, the bill was amended to provide a $1,800 assessment on each home built in the project, which would raise about $4.5 million. Wetlands restoration is estimated to cost upwards of $12 million.
But Assemblyman Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee where the bill was to have been heard Monday, said he told Bergeson that he "wanted ironclad assurances that wetlands restoration would go forward and that financing would be there."
Even without Sher's concerns, the bill was destined for a difficult hearing before the committee. This was, in part, because the City of Huntington Beach, which completely surrounds Bolsa Chica and eventually would annex it, had expressed concerns over not having a chance to fully evaluate last-minute amendments proposed by Signal.
Huntington Beach, which has been working with Signal on a pre-annexation and development agreement, had supported the bill, but recently city officials had expressed discomfort over some proposed amendments, and Bergeson was aware of that discomfort.
Even had she taken a chance to win the seven votes on the 12-member committee needed to send the bill to the Assembly floor--and there were indications that she was short one vote, and perhaps two--Bergeson said she wanted more than bare majority support for the legislation.
She said she also wanted support from some of the state agencies involved in wetlands restoration and other issues surrounding the development of Bolsa Chica. Agencies such as the state Department of Fish and Game and the State Lands Commission have not opposed the bill but have expressed some concerns about certain provisions.
"We don't like neutrality; we like support," Bergeson said.
While she said she was confident that Signal would pay for wetlands restoration as the company had promised, she added: "But some of it is based on trust. And I think you've got to have a better system of locking that down with statutory assurances, and this is what the committee needed."
Signal lawyer Russell G. Behrens said Monday that the company is "disappointed" over the bill's delay "because it's going to slow us down, and we have a lot of negotiating to do with state and federal agencies."
But, he added, "I think that on balance, it's a good move. . . ."