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Under Pressure, O.C. Offers 2 Scaled-Down Bolsa Plans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In response to vehement criticism, the county has taken the unusual step of suggesting two plans that would dramatically downsize the proposed development of the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

While the Koll Real Estate Group proposes to build 4,286 homes, a county document described Monday proffers alternatives of either 3,200 or 2,500 homes.

A spokesman for the Koll company called the last alternative “totally, unequivocally unacceptable.”

“I have to deal with what’s real, and our plan for Bolsa Chica is real,” Senior Vice President Lucy Dunn said, adding that she did not have enough information to comment on the proposal for 3,200 units but that she considered it inferior to her company’s plan.

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The Koll plan is still on the table; the county’s environmental impact report merely offers the company some alternatives. It also sends a message that the company’s own plan might not be approved.

“What we’re trying to do is be responsive to the comments we’ve received,” said Tom Mathews, director of planning for the county’s Environmental Management Agency, which prepared both reports. The developers, he said, “are going to have to lower their expectations.”

In December, the county released a bulky environmental impact report analyzing the Koll plan which, in addition to the homes, calls for construction of a road transecting the area and a $20-million tidal inlet connecting the wetlands to the ocean as the centerpiece of an ambitious restoration effort.

During a 60-day period for public comments, the report was soundly lambasted by environmentalists, residents and Huntington Beach officials on grounds ranging from environmental concerns to the prohibitive costs of providing city services for so many new residents.

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“We got more than 350 letters,” Mathews said. “We analyzed the critical concerns and determined that in order to develop a viable plan, we would have to substantially revise the document, so we decided to write a new one.”

Calling the Koll plan “wishful thinking,” Mathews on Monday described the new environmental impact report--at a press conference and then before a planning session of the Huntington Beach City Council. He said it would be released next week.

While the Koll plan would include 4,286 homes on 400 acres of both bluff areas and protected lowland marshes, it also would commit the company to restore 1,100 acres of wetlands.

The county’s 3,200-home plan calls for some development on protected lowland marshes and requires the company to restore the rest of the wetlands.

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The lowest-density plan would allow no homes on protected areas, relieving the Koll company of any responsibility for restoring the wetlands.

Neither county alternative includes a transecting road or tidal inlet, Mathews said.

Some environmentalists were critical of the new report.

Chuck Nelson, president of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, which has long lobbied for wetlands restoration, said he applauded the new plans’ lower densities but would be skeptical of any proposal that didn’t include a tidal inlet.

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“The more we’ve studied this,” he said, “the more convinced we’ve become that the tidal inlet provides the absolute best biodiverse restoration of the wetlands.

“We feel strongly that this is the type of restoration we should have at Bolsa Chica, and we hope there will be a chance for everybody to look at this again.”

Gordon LaBedz, a spokesman for the North Orange County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said that while he welcomes any downsizing of the project his group opposes any development of the wetlands at all.

“What this says is that the good guys are winning,” he said. “Koll is continuously having to back down. The Surfrider Foundation will fight for every acre.”

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And Connie Boardman, president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, expressed dismay that any development is proposed for the site.

“With 2,000 homes or 3,000 homes, it’s not going to make any difference than with 4,000 homes,” she said. “It’s still going to be detrimental to the ecosystem.”

Construction could begin in mid-1996, with completion in 12 to 22 years.

A 45-day comment period on the new environmental impact report will begin Aug. 23, Mathews said, after which the Board of Supervisors will consider the project. And during this round of discussions, the county official said, he plans to hold at least one public hearing in Huntington Beach, an omission for which he was roundly criticized last year.

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That news, at least, brought a smile to Huntington Beach Mayor Linda Moulton Patterson, who has been critical of the county.

“The city wants to be as actively involved as it can be,” she said of the upcoming discussions the new report is sure to kick off.

City Administrator Michael T. Uberuaga said he would formally request that the comment period on the new document be extended from 45 to 90 days. And the Huntington Beach City Council Monday night, in an emergency action, unanimously voted to request the same.

And Mathews said he hoped that the county’s action would help break the logjam that seems to have dogged the project for years.

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“It’s time,” he said. “This is a reality check for everybody; I want to get on to other projects.”

Times staff writer Deborah Cano contributed to this story.


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