Progress Pleases All Sides in Fight Over Bolsa Chica Wetlands’ Future

Times Staff Writer

For many environmentalists and planners at every level of government, it once seemed that they would grow old and die before the battle of the Bolsa Chica wetlands ended.

But a group of property owners, nature lovers, politicians and corporate executives last fall formed the Bolsa Chica Planning Coalition, and they have been working in a new spirit of compromise over the project.

Sometime this spring--perhaps as soon as next month--they expect to have accomplished what no one else has in almost 2 decades: find an agreeable way to restore more than 900 acres of degraded wetlands and build thousands of homes on the rest of the ecologically sensitive coastal land that is surrounded by the city of Huntington Beach.

Three of the main players in this long-brewing debate--the city of Huntington Beach; Signal Landmark Inc., the major landowner; and Amigos de Bolsa Chica, an environmental group fighting to preserve the wetlands--have offered alternatives to a county plan that has met with continued community resistance.


Several Points Shared

The alternatives share several key points: They provide for wetlands restoration, they permit the construction of hundreds--even thousands--of homes and they do not require a costly rerouting of Pacific Coast Highway. Most critically, they do not include a boat channel to the sea.

Many details remain to be worked out. They include exactly where and how many homes should be built, the number of acres of wetlands that will be restored by reopening them to tidal waters and who will pay for this. But even longtime archenemies in the Bolsa Chica debate feel hopeful about the future of the wetlands.

“I would say in the last 13 years this is the closest (to a compromise) I’ve ever seen us,” said Huntington Beach Councilman Peter M. Green, who represents the city on the coalition and helped found Amigos de Bolsa Chica.


‘We’re Getting Closer’

“There’s a joke that I’ve been in ‘Bolsa Chica Prison,’ ” added Thomas G. Yocom of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “and now I’m on parole. . . . We’re getting closer to the end.”

Today, the Bolsa Chica wetlands amount to a vast oil field dotted by pickleweed and pumping rigs, tank farms and a limited number of restored wetlands. It is here, on these barren 1,600 acres along Pacific Coast Highway south of Warner Avenue, that the war has been waged for 15 years, pitting environmentalists against the primary landowner, Signal Landmark.

Nature enthusiasts see the wetlands as a vital feeding and nesting areas for birds and wildlife that have fewer and fewer migratory stops along California as coastal wetlands have been developed. When Signal bought the property in 1970, it planned to develop the unincorporated land, which is governed by the county and surrounded by the city of Huntington Beach. But first it had to grapple with preserving the wetlands.

For now, the only official development plan approved for the Bolsa Chica is the county’s Land Use Plan, authorized in 1984. It calls for a huge waterfront community on the 1,200 acres owned by Signal.

The plan includes 5,700 homes, as well as restaurants and hotels, a 1,400-slip marina and a channel to the ocean that would be deep and wide enough for boats to navigate. After years of negotiations, the state Coastal Commission in 1985 gave Signal preliminary approval for this plan. As part of the agreement, Signal had to restore 915 acres of damaged wetlands and turn them over to the state. The approval hinged on results of myriad environmental and financial feasibility studies, including a study of the impact of a navigable ocean channel.

Widespread opposition to a navigable marina entrance, which would slice through the popular Bolsa Chica State Beach, built to a crescendo in the months before the last election.

Because there was little support in Huntington Beach for such a channel, city officials balked at endorsing state Sen. Marian Bergeson’s (R-Newport Beach) bill to create a special assessment district that would govern early stages, as well as be able to finance the development. Huntington Beach City Administrator Paul Cook, saying there were too many unanswered questions about the proposal, urged the City Council to oppose the bill. Last June, Bergeson withdrew it.


Community Galvanized

If nothing else, Bergeson’s bill galvanized the community--most especially the city’s leadership.

In the months that followed, Huntington Beach City Councilman John Erskine and Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder say, they met repeatedly with Cook about how to solve the city’s difficulties over the Bolsa Chica project. And after years of being an onlooker, because the city has no technical jurisdiction over the unincorporated area, Wieder said, Huntington Beach finally took the wheel. Although the city still has no jurisdiction, Huntington Beach has always been expected to annex the area once development occurs.

After the discussions of Bergeson’s bill, principals saw a need for continued joint effort and formed the coalition late last October. Its mission: to find a new scenario within 6 months that everyone involved could accept. All five voting members--the city, the county, Signal, the Amigos and the state Lands Commission, which owns more than 200 acres of restored wetlands in the marsh--must agree on a final plan.

A final draft probably will borrow from all three development plans under consideration, coalition members say. But the proposal offered by Huntington Beach staff planners already has been agreed upon “in concept,” said Jeffrey B. Holm, Signal’s senior vice president for land development. “The ‘in concept’ part is very important,” he added.

At a Feb. 27 coalition meeting, maps of the alternatives were pinned to a wall at Huntington Beach City Hall for preliminary discussions. Joe Bodovitz, the $1,200-a-day facilitator hired by the coalition and paid by the city and county, outlined each proposal.

Points they share include restoration of at least 927 acres of wetlands--the minimum established last month by the EPA; absence of a boating channel, which would have sliced through the beach; no rerouting of Pacific Coast Highway; home construction on a mesa on the property, and a narrow park on the eastern or southern boundaries of the development.

Architects of each alternative plan also stress that the following acreages and home counts are ballpark numbers subject to continuing negotiation.


- Signal’s “Lake” plan: This is very similar to the county-approved project in that it calls for 5,700 homes, a 25-acre commercial development with grocery and dry cleaners and a small hotel and 927 acres of restored wetlands. It also leaves open the possibility of a special assessment district with powers to tax future residents to help bankroll the project. Instead of the 117-acre marina, this plan now calls for an 86-acre recreational sailing lake similar to Lake Mission Viejo. Instead of 1,300 boats, the lake would be home to 200 to 250 sailboats or rowboats.

- Huntington Beach’s “Mesa” plan: This essentially calls for 4,200 homes to be built mostly on the mesa and restoration of at least 927 acres of wetlands, with no commercial development. It is based on the theory that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will buy the wetlands and restore them, because they are required by law to make up for the wetlands they are destroying as they expand their harbors. Parkland would be included, but actual acreage would depend on the final number of homes.

- Amigos de Bolsa Chica’s “Park” plan: This emphasizes “public access and wetlands restoration,” Bodovitz said. The Amigos have said that wetlands--not density--is their chief interest. So how many homes is less important than where they will be built. But their plan calls for about 1,200 homes that would be limited to the mesa and restoration of about 1,100 acres of wetlands. The plan also tentatively calls for a peripheral park of about 300 acres around the rectangular parcel, plus a nature preserve.

If all sides can agree on a plan to replace the county’s Land Use Plan for the Bolsa Chica, there still remains a lot of work to be done. The Board of Supervisors will have to withdraw the original development plan and conduct public hearings on the new one. Huntington Beach could decide to hold its own hearings. Then the Coastal Commission will have to hold public hearings and review any new plan for compliance with coastal regulations. Then the county will have to certify a final plan, after which the project will go back before the Coastal Commission for its final certification.

“We are hoping to get all that done in 12 months,” Signal’s Holm said. “We realize that is aggressive, but we’ve been at this 20 years now.”

He points out that Signal has not abandoned its original designs for the Bolsa Chica, although his team has worked for the past 4 months toward a compromise. Likewise, the Amigos de Bolsa Chica has not dropped a 16-year-old lawsuit against Signal seeking to halt or delay development.

New Esprit de Corps

But a new esprit de corps seems to have been struck among coalition members--most notably between Signal and the Amigos, longtime combatants over the wetlands, Wieder said.

Shirley Detloff, president of the 1,000-member Amigos, said the conservation group still staunchly endorses its own entry. But the group tentatively backed the city’s--"in the interest of compromise,” she said. Final endorsement will depend on such details as the final number of wetlands acres to be restored and whether any development will take place on the lowlands--where the group believes wetlands have the greatest restoration potential.

Carl Neuhaus, Signal’s vice president of planning, said the firm “can live with” the city’s plan if it provides enough financial return to pay for the long-sought development and turn a profit too.

Bodovitz, the paid peacekeeper, sees nothing but progress ahead.

“I think it’s really reasonable to conclude that we have the ranges” for a final plan, Bodovitz told the coalition last month. “We are booming along.”

A critical problem will be solved if the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles agree to restore the wetlands to compensate for environmental damage caused by their own port expansions. That remains under negotiation.

One way or the other, participants say, progress is near.

“I didn’t think I would be alive. (I thought) it would not be in my lifetime that anything would happen with Bolsa Chica,” said Wieder, who has dealt with the political controversy both as a Huntington Beach City Council member and now as a supervisor.

“I’m really very, very encouraged.”