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Court Backs Local Review of Plans for Bolsa Chica

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appeals court has affirmed a local judge’s decision that the local review of a proposed housing project at the Bolsa Chica wetlands conformed with state environmental law.

The Wednesday ruling also states that the developer who wants to build 1,235 homes alongside the wetlands will not have to pay environmentalists $56,000 in legal fees and related costs.

The ruling is being hailed as a victory by California Coastal Communities Inc., the successor to Koll Real Estate Group, which has been engaged in a many-pronged legal battle with environmentalists over plans to build homes on the mesa above Bolsa Chica, one of the largest and most ecologically sensitive wetlands in Southern California.

“Our environmental review is still solid,” said Lucy Dunn, executive vice president for Hearthside Homes, a Coastal Communities subsidiary and the home-builder for the 1,235 homes planned for the mesa.

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But environmentalists downplayed the ruling, noting the tangle of legal cases surrounding the project. At least eight more cases remain on appeal related to the Bolsa Chica development.

“This is really kind of a smaller issue,” said Paul Horgan, president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, one of the environmental groups that brought the appeal. He quoted from the decision: “This is the latest chapter in a 25-year-old environmental controversy over development in and around the Bolsa Chica wetlands; and there is, apparently, other litigation still pending elsewhere, and more surely to follow. . . .”

He added: “We certainly wouldn’t want to argue with the Court of Appeal.”

But Dunn countered, “There’s no question about it, the tone of the judges’ decision is that these people are wasting our time.”

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The ruling dates from a lawsuit in which project opponents claimed Orange County failed to adequately review an earlier 3,300-home Bolsa Chica plan before the Board of Supervisors approved it in 1994.

Superior Court Judge William McDonald in 1996 denied most of those claims but called for more review of one piece of the plan and later awarded partial attorney fees to the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and affiliated groups. In turn, the environmentalists appealed his denials, but lost this week in appellate court.


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