An estimated 350 people turned out at City Hall on Wednesday to discuss--and mostly disagree about--a new environmental impact report for the proposed development of the Bolsa Chica wetlands.
"We believe the Bolsa Chica project is a critical element of the future of this county," Bruce Brown, representing a pro-development group called Californians for Bolsa Chica, told the county Planning Commission. "We don't want to see the wetlands sit and degrade any further when there is an opportunity to restore them."
Connie Boardman, president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, disagreed. "This is not a restoration plan," she said of the proposed development. "It is not permissible to build homes on wetlands."
The hearing was the first of three by the Planning Commission on the county's latest environmental impact report analyzing the development of Bolsa Chica.
That report, released last month, contains two less ambitious alternatives to the plan proposed by Koll Real Estate Group, which owns most of the wetlands. While the Koll company proposes to build 4,286 homes, the latest county document proffers alternatives of either 3,200 or 2,500 homes.
The Koll plan is still on the table; the county's environmental impact report merely offers some alternatives and sends a message that the Koll plan might not be approved.
While the Koll plan includes homes on 400 acres of both bluff areas and protected lowland marshes, it also commits the company to restoring 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. The lowest-density plan would allow no homes on protected areas but would relieve Koll of any responsibility for restoring the wetlands.
Both plans proposed by the county would eliminate a $20-million tidal inlet connecting the wetlands to the ocean that is the centerpiece of the Koll company's proposed restoration plan, an omission that became a major point of contention Wednesday.
"We were somewhat dismayed by the elimination of the tidal inlet," said Chuck Nelson, president of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, an environmental group. "It just makes sense for restoration that you include a tidal inlet."
But Bruce Monroe, speaking for the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club, maintained that the wetlands could best be preserved without the inlet.
"We ask you to protect the full (area) and preserve it as open space," he told the commissioners.
Responding to the public comments in an interview, Lucy Dunn, senior vice president of the Koll company, said the developer is sticking to its original plan. "Our wetlands restoration is the best," she said, "and the number of homes we have proposed is the number we need to pay for it."
The hearing was the first of at least three planned by the commission to consider the Koll plan and the county's suggested alternatives. Eventually the commission will make a recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors.
Wednesday's was the first of at least three public hearings on the wetlands project that will be held by the Planning Commission between now and late November. After the hearings, the commission will make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to consider the matter by the end of the year. If the supervisors approve the Koll Co. project, which they also can amend, it then needs the approval of the California Coastal Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, which could take an undetermined amount of time. Once both agencies approve the plan, construction can begin. If everything goes well, proponents hope, construction could begin sometime in 1996. Supporters hope to begin restoration work on the wetlands by 1998.