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Bolsa Chica Agreement Is All but Official

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One of the most sweeping plans in Southern California history to preserve endangered coastal wetlands came down to two sentences scribbled in green ink just minutes before a momentous vote.

The State Lands Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved state acquisition and restoration of 880 acres of Bolsa Chica, triggering a standing ovation and sighs of relief from throngs of supporters of the bird-rich wetlands near Huntington Beach.

Whether the issue would ever get to a vote remained in question until Wednesday at noon, however, because two oil companies--key participants in the overall agreement--had failed to resolve their differences over contract provisions governing environmental cleanup of the area, parts of which have long been a producing oil field.

When word came that the oil companies had finally reached an agreement, officials said, commission member and state Controller Kathleen Connell added two sentences in green ink noting that the commission had been given guarantees that all of the necessary documents would be signed by noon Friday, clearing the way for the commission’s vote.

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Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the commission chairman, held up the handwritten amendment for all to see.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many public and private parties come together for the public good,” Davis told a jubilant crowd in Huntington Beach City Hall.

“This is an historic agreement,” said Connell.

If all goes according to plan, the $91-million deal to save the Bolsa Chica wetlands should be signed and sealed and the land transferred by Friday, officials said. The swath of marshes and ponds is to become a major public wildlife preserve, with a new inlet connecting the wetlands and the sea.

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After the lands commission vote, California Secretary of Resources Douglas Wheeler said in Sacramento, “This is another very important step toward final resolution of a 20-year-old resource issue, the outcome of which is now almost certain, and the benefits of which are enormous,”

The complex deal was hammered out over months of negotiations involving a bevy of public agencies, the landowner, two oil companies and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

It calls for landowner Koll Real Estate Group to be paid $25 million for the wetlands, and another $66 million to be spent on restoring the wide swath of wetlands now dotted with oil wells.

Most of the money is being contributed by the two ports, which will get wetlands preservation credits in exchange for the $79 million they are putting up, allowing them to proceed with expansion plans.

To the delight of environmentalists, state purchase of the wetlands means that 900 homes will not be built there, although Koll still plans 2,400 homes on a mesa overlooking the wetlands.

One key element of the plan, and the last-minute sticking point, was a side agreement on the cleanup of contaminants left from decades of oil-field operations. That cleanup effort will be paid for by Shell Oil Co. affiliate CalResources and the Phillips Petroleum Co.

That agreement appeared in jeopardy Tuesday night when the two oil companies remained locked in talks, reportedly on an item unrelated to Bolsa Chica.

The negotiations involved the parties’ responsibilities for several properties--including some in Kern County--that were part of a sale made to Shell Oil 10 years ago, said Tuss Erickson, a property risk manager in the health, environment and safety group of Phillips Petroleum.

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“As far as we’re concerned, we’ve got a deal,” Erickson said Wednesday evening. “It was just a matter of getting the right language, and we were successful.”

“The whole reason for Phillips Petroleum’s involvement is that we sold a number of properties and leases to Shell Oil in 1986,” Erickson said. “And so, what we’re doing, as part of this agreement, is trying to settle all the issues associated with that 1986 sales agreement.”

Erickson said Phillips “didn’t want to address only Bolsa Chica” and instead sought “to clarify the parties’ obligations under the 1986 agreement.”

CalResources agreed that an end was in sight.

“The major issues have been resolved and we’re moving forward with the agreements themselves,” said CalResources spokeswoman Susan Hersberger. “It’s now more a matter of logistics than issues, gathering exhibits, documents and that sort of thing.”

Hersberger said the Shell Oil subsidiary and Phillips Petroleum reached “a verbal agreement” Wednesday.

As a matter of policy, Hersberger said, she could not elaborate on the details, but she said the issues involved property and leases other than Bolsa Chica, including some in Kern County.

“My understanding of the timetable is that . . . we will be confirming in writing by 5 p.m. today the fact that we have a verbal agreement, but the actual agreements aren’t completed yet and may not be until” Thursday or Friday, Hersberger said Wednesday.

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The commission confirmed late Wednesday that the promised written guarantee was in fact delivered before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Tom Livengood, president of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, an environmental group, said he was “ecstatic” about the agreement.

Even as late as noon Wednesday, he feared the deal was falling apart.

But at 12:30 p.m., a CalResources representative announced at the commission meeting, “We think we have reached agreement for the private parties to go forward.” The room broke into long applause, with some in the audience standing or shouting approval.

“That was the key, when they made the commitment in front of God and everybody,” Livengood said later.

Some hope that the wetlands purchase is but a first step, and that it will be followed by public acquisition of the adjoining mesa and cancellation of the 2,400-home complex planned there.

And some wary activists said they were not ready to celebrate.

Linda Moon, a founding member of the Amigos, said, “I’m the organization’s cynic. I’ll believe it when I see the recorder’s stamp on the deed.”

Also contributing to this report was Times correspondent Steve Carney.


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