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Extent of Wetlands Revival Is Crux of Housing Debate : Where Builder, Birds Collide

Years ago, before the word development was uttered anywhere near its edges, the wetlands on the old Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach were teeming with birds--owls and sparrows, migrating blue herons and egrets.

But over the years, what environmentalists say was once about 100 acres of marshy nesting grounds for avians has largely disappeared, leaving what they say is today about 26 acres of severely degraded wetlands.

The Wetlands Restoration Society, a Seal Beach environmental group, would like to see the wetlands restored in their entirety, but the property they are a part of--a parcel situated north of Pacific Coast Highway and west of Seal Beach Boulevard, is zoned for residential use, and developers have proposed to build hundreds of houses on it.

The Mola Development Co. of Newport Beach has for several years been submitting proposals to build on the property. Its latest proposal calls for 355 single-family houses on 149 acres that was once part of Hellman Ranch. It is the largest undeveloped area in Seal Beach to be zoned for residential use.

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Mola disputes environmentalists’ claims that the wetlands ever comprised 100 acres at any time in this century. Company project manager Kirk Evans said that as part of its development agreement with the city, the firm has promised to restore the 26 acres of wetlands there now, plus another 10 acres. .

That promise, however, is not enough for the Restoration Society, which was formed two years ago and now has about 150 members. The group opposes any development that would encroach on what they see as the original 100 acres of wetlands.

Instead, the society wants to see the development confined to just 20 acres on a hillside next to Seal Beach Boulevard overlooking the wetlands.

“Just because we’ve built up so much, should we continue?” said Galen Ambrose, one of the society’s founders.

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Although what Mola proposes to do with the wetlands would be an improvement, Ambrose said, their plans still would result in a destruction of bird habitats.

The wetlands are under what is known as the Pacific Flyway, a path birds use on their migrations north or south, Ambrose said. The birds stop to rest and feed in the big swampy areas under the flyway, so that any building near the wetlands will make them less appealing to the birds.

“If you build out everything, there is nothing left to use anymore,” Ambrose said. “When the birds go, that’s a sign that humanity is going.”

The El Dorado chapter of the National Audubon Society of Long Beach also opposes the development, according to chapter representative Mary Parsell.

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The chapter has been monitoring the wetlands for the past 10 years, and it has determined that it is one of the homes of the the Belding’s savannah sparrow, an endangered species in California, Parsell said.

Parsell said that the sparrow, which is native to Southern California, does not migrate. Therefore, she said, the loss of a nesting place will further reduce the bird’s chances of survival.

Evans disagrees with that view, arguing that the company’s improvements to the wetlands will aid any wildlife there. The company will, Evans said, return tidal flow to the wetlands and also replant native flora such as pickle weed, one of the plants in which the endangered sparrow nests, Evans said.

An environmental impact report prepared by consultants for the city shows that the project will not be harmful to the wetlands, Evans said.

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“Where we are taking a tree away, we are replacing it,” he said.

The company knows that it must not infringe upon the wetlands, Evans said. In 1988, the state Coastal Commission rejected a previous--and also city-approved--plan for the Hellman Ranch property to build 770 single-family houses and a golf course because the project would have encroached on six acres of wetlands, Evans said.

The Seal Beach City Council is scheduled to consider granting final approval to the project Oct. 9, but the real test will come when the Coastal Commission, which has the final say, considers the matter. The commission is scheduled to hear the proposal during the week of Nov. 13, according to Charles Damm, director of the commission’s South Coast District.

Damm said the commission staff will evaluate the project to determine how it would affect the wetlands and whether it would provide appropriate recreational facilities and public access, and whether any geological hazards have been addressed. The staff is to present its recommendation to the commission around Nov. 1, Damm said.

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