Plans to build luxury homes on a mesa overlooking the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach won approval Thursday from the California Coastal Commission, ending a 30-year battle that saved the salt marsh from development.
Hearthside Homes will build 349 houses and a park on 105 acres overlooking the 1,100-acre Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which is undergoing a $65-million restoration -- the largest such undertaking in Southern California.
The project -- which has been reduced in size and scope over the years -- represents what is expected to be the final skirmish over the wetlands after the fight to preserve it and its mesas.
In 1980, developers planned to build at least 5,700 homes, several marinas and hundreds of acres of commercial buildings on the site, regarded then by builders as little more than degraded mudflats that were better off being developed.
Meeting here Thursday, the Coastal Commission voted 11 to 1 in favor of the project, adding more than two dozen conditions the developers must follow.
Though the vote was a landmark moment in the preservation battle, some environmentalists were disappointed by the decision to finally allow development in the Bolsa Chica area.
“It’s a bitter pill to have the proposed development be approved,” said Flossie Horgan, a founding member of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which fought to preserve the upland areas of the wetlands.
“While we’re not excited about it, we are proud that we worked so hard with so many people to do what we’ve done.”
Environmentalists expect that the decision will also clear the way for the state to buy 103 acres of the mesa and preserve the land as part of the reserve.
Ed Mountford, Hearthside senior vice president, said 96% of Bolsa Chica was now in public hands and set aside as open space.
“I’ve spent 12 years of my life on this, and I’m very gratified to have the commission finally approve a plan, one that we can live with,” he said.
Twice Hearthside has submitted and withdrawn plans for the mesa.
In October, the company took back its proposal after commissioners raised questions about public access to trails and protecting environmentally sensitive habitat for the southern tar plant, the burrowing owl and eucalyptus trees.
As a result, Hearthside dropped its proposal for a gated community to allow the public to drive and park on subdivision streets.
Plans for a private recreation center were scrapped in favor of preserving the southern tar plant.
The developer also agreed to filter storm water on site rather than build retention basins that would have interfered with burrowing owl habitat.
The biggest debate Thursday was over how much buffer space should be required between the planned homes and the ecological reserve. The commission staff had recommended at least 328 feet, but commissioners balked, instead settling for a range of 150 to 382 feet.
“There’s no point to having habitat if there’s no protection of the immediate surroundings,” said Dave Carlberg, a retired biologist and past president of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the original environmental group that fought to preserve the Bolsa Chica.
As part of the plan, Hearthside’s parent company -- California Coastal Communities -- is expected to sell the 103 acres next to the reserve for $65 million.
The purchase would be funded by Proposition 50, a 2002 initiative providing $3.4 billion for environmental projects.