Pointing to a company memorandum as evidence, an environmental group is questioning whether state and federal agencies secretly gave Koll Real Estate Group assurances that houses could be built on the Bolsa Chica mesa.
The Bolsa Chica Land Trust has made public a February memorandum from Koll Senior Vice President Lucy Dunn, in which she refers to negotiations for "development assurances" for the mesa area.
State and federal agencies contacted Friday denied knowledge of any special deal paving the way for developing the mesa.
Dunn herself said the land trust is taking a "meaningless" statement out of context and confusing the issue.
In an important victory for Koll, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday approved the developer's scaled-down plans for 1,235 homes on the mesa overlooking one of the largest wetlands in Southern California. That decision has been criticized by the land trust, which opposes building homes on the mesa.
In the memo, addressed to Dunn's boss, she discusses the much-publicized sale of the wetlands to the State Lands Commission in February.
"A company triumph resulted in KREG eliminating its wetlands restoration obligations, removing its oil and gas cleanup exposure, eliminating significant press and public relations issues, setting the stage for resolution of two lawsuits affecting the property and it brought in cash at a time when the Company was operating from payroll to payroll," Dunn wrote.
In the sentence that has angered the land trust, she added, "Certain mesa development assurances were also negotiated to protect state and federal agencies from another 'bite at the apple' in any future permit processing for our project. The Company also has established strong, credible relationships with 17 public agencies which will assist us not only in our project build-out, but also in future business opportunities."
Dunn said the memo appears to have been stolen from Koll employee files, and she is consulting a company attorney about the issue.
"It's a personal memo between me and my boss," Dunn said. "If they have to sink this low to garner some headline that is favorable to them, shame on them, shame on them."
She added that the memo was written when she was asking her supervisor for a bonus after the sale of the wetlands.
"I apologize to state and federal agencies who appear to be compromised by a foolish internal statement of mine used out of context," Dunn said. The statement appears to have been incorrectly interpreted to mean that state and federal agencies engaged in closed-door deals, Dunn said.
Land trust leaders have released the Dunn memo to news organizations, saying it hints at a back-room deal with the Coastal Commission or some other government agency.
"My main concern is that deals were struck out of the public process behind closed doors without public scrutiny," said Connie Boardman, a land trust member.
Boardman said her group received a packet containing the Dunn memo and other information in the mail Wednesday, one day before the Coastal Commission hearing. She said she has no idea who sent the packet, and it bore no return address.
The memo is dated Feb. 18, four days after the Valentine's Day closing of the massive $25-million state purchase of 880 acres of Bolsa Chica wetlands from Koll. The developer originally planned 900 homes on part of the property, but it is now earmarked for restoration as a major public wildlife refuge. Koll retained ownership of the mesa.
Dunn played a major role in the talks to sell the wetlands, which involved a number of public agencies and high-level state and federal officials, including state Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler.
In her memo, addressed to Koll Real Estate Group President Dick Ortwein, Dunn asked for additional compensation for her work involving the sale.
Previous reports of bonuses paid to Koll executives caused some controversy among environmentalists, especially since the company reorganized under federal bankruptcy protection this year.
Dunn called her statement in the memo about government permitting "meaningless," saying the permitting process for Koll's initial plans for 2,400 homes was on hold at the time the memo was written because of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists. At the State Lands Commission, Executive Director Robert Hight said Friday: "We have no jurisdiction over the mesa. Therefore, we could not and did not guarantee development of the mesa."
State Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said he had no idea what Dunn was referring to regarding assurances.