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Disney Coastal Park Plan in Rough Seas

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Walt Disney Co. is running into rough seas in the Legislature as it seeks to press for passage of a bill that would allow construction of a $2.8-billion resort along the Long Beach shoreline.

Disney began its legislative push earlier this year with what appeared to be built-in advantages: enormous goodwill, a high-powered lobbying team and a growing list of supporters, from Long Beach to Los Angeles County.

But even before its first hearing, the entertainment giant’s proposal has encountered stiff opposition from environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. In the latest sign of trouble, supporters Tuesday postponed a hearing scheduled by the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, the third procedural delay for the bill in the past month.

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The legislation is part of Disney’s effort to clear the way if the company decides to build a theme park in Long Beach. The company has said it intends to build a second West Coast theme park, either in Long Beach or in Anaheim next to Disneyland.

The latest delay may jeopardize Disney’s aim to win quick passage of the measure. David Malmuth, vice president of the Disney Development Co., acknowledged that it would be “more difficult to get it out of the Legislature in one year.”

Malmuth said he agreed to the postponement to allow more time for negotiations with opponents questioning the environmental consequences of the proposed Port Disney theme resort.

If built, Port Disney would extend over 250 acres of ocean fill in Queensway Bay. The project would include Disney Sea, a theme park with rides and attractions; five hotels, retail shops, a marina and cruise ship terminal.

Malmuth noted that Disney has reached agreement with the state Coastal Commission staff to limit the scope of its legislation to the Disney project, ensuring that it would not set a precedent for other coastal projects. Now, Disney executives and Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno), who is carrying the measure, say they are seeking to resolve other concerns, especially one key sticking point on environmental trade-offs.

Sen. Henry J. Mello (D-Watsonville) is among those who has raised environmental concerns, seeking to force Disney to restore as much as four acres of coastal wetland habitat between Santa Barbara and San Diego for every acre filled by the company in Long Beach.

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Mello, who opposes the Disney bill, said: “They’re trying to fill ocean waters. That’s the biggest sin man can commit on this planet as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s Disney or anybody else.”

Roderick J. Meade Jr., a Disney environmental consultant, said that to impose such a requirement on Disney would amount to an “unprecedented” trade-off.

Among issues raised by other senators are that Disney make a firm commitment to establish an ocean education program, try to see that its Long Beach employees reflect the area’s multiracial population, and maintain the water quality in Queensway Bay.

Maddy said he is trying to fashion the legislation “to at least minimize what appears to be strong opposition by some members of the committee.” Even so, he said he thought he had the votes on the Natural Resources Committee to win approval.

Environmental opponents questioned whether Disney can count on backing from a majority of the committee. “I think they would have brought it up today if they had the votes,” said Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission.

Douglas said the commission remains opposed to the bill, but because Disney has narrowed its focus, the panel is expected to consider whether to re-evaluate its stand at a meeting in San Francisco next month.

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Other critics maintain that Disney is seeking a special-interest bill. V. John White, lobbyist for American Oceans Campaign, an environmental group, said Disney is attempting “to use the Legislature to advance their interests in negotiations” with the cities of Long Beach and Anaheim.

Malmuth of Disney Development dismissed those suggestions, saying that the intent of the legislation is to spell out authorization for the Port Disney project to be located on landfill. He also rejected assertions by opponents that the legislation would jeopardize federal funds for the Coastal Commission or open up the coastline to oil drilling.

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