Dispute over Bolsa Chica wetlands is a lasting affair

Times Staff Writer

Like seasoned actors in a long-running play, both sides feuding here over a 50-acre swath near Huntington Beach’s Bolsa Chica wetlands had refined their speeches and memorized the other’s lines. After all, both environmentalists and development backers had almost three decades of practice sparring before the state Coastal Commission over various slivers of Southern California’s largest remaining wetlands.

Last week, as the two sides went back and forth over a proposed project called Parkside Estates, the ending was emblematic of past episodes in the Bolsa Chica saga: To be continued.

The defining characteristic one of the state’s landmark environmental success stories might be its lack of closure.

The battle’s epitaph has repeatedly been written: when the State Lands Commission bought hundreds of wetland acres in 1997, sparing them from becoming housing tracts; when workers began siphoning oils and heavy metals from the salt marshes in 2004; and last year, when the marshland and the Pacific Ocean were reunited for the first time in a century.


But the more than 1,000-acre Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve -- pushed up against tract homes on one side and spilling into the Pacific Ocean on the other -- was created through piecemeal victories in a decades-long display of an oft-repeated activist mantra: “The coast is never saved; it is always being saved.”

With 95% of the state’s coastal wetlands destroyed, preservationists are too invested in Bolsa Chica to shrug off any plan for construction nearby; each skirmish is treated as a potential Waterloo. In turn, with coastal property at a premium and the state’s population expected to leap 75% by midcentury, developers still consider waterfront land a potential cash machine.

“This is a battle coming from population growth and development’s desire to move into more and more ecologically and culturally valuable land,” said Travis Longcore, director of urban ecological research at the USC Center for Sustainable Cities. “And you can’t save a wetland by putting a fence around it and building up to that.”

So in 2005, when The Times wrote that Bolsa Chica’s imminent restoration “marks the last chapter in a decades-long battle,” Huntington Beach activist Julie Bixby sent a letter to the editor saying she “took umbrage” with the idea that a detente was near.

She ticked off several parcels “threatened by homes,” including the Parkside Estates land.

“With a project like this, you can’t just sit back and say, ‘This is cool and I’m not going to do anything else,’ ” said Flossie Horgan, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.

That sentiment carried over to Parkside Estates, a proposal whose history has unfolded in the traditional lumbering fashion of things Bolsa Chica.

A decade ago, Shea Homes purchased property that shoulders the wetlands.


With the site’s proximity to ecologically delicate land and the city’s slow-growth backers carrying some clout, officials figured any project would demand an extra year or two.

“But it didn’t seem like a wild idea to get homes approved,” said Shea spokesman Laer Pearce. “There’s no piece of California you can buy these days and say, ‘Gee, this will be simple.’ ”

In 2002, Huntington Beach tentatively approved the developer’s plan to build up to 170 homes on 38 acres, with about a dozen more acres of parks and open space. Shea’s plans would seal the fate of the last large parcel in the area; the other two are about six acres each.

“In terms of acreage, this is the last big one,” said Mark Bixby, a software engineer who joined the Bolsa Chica battle about five years ago with his wife, Julie. “Not to say there won’t be points of contention on the other two.”


Farmers have harvested alfalfa and celery on the Shea property for half a century, making it difficult for biologists to figure out how much of the land could be restored as marshlands. Two prior commissions blocked building in the 1980s, saying the site contained precious wetlands.

Not so, said Shea officials, who touted $15 million in planned flood-control upgrades.

The Parkside project was placed on the commission’s February agenda but was postponed.

Meanwhile, the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network filed an enforcement lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court accusing Shea Homes of illegally filling in the wetlands.


In May, at a lengthy commission meeting in San Pedro, similar accusations swayed several commissioners to ask staff for a revised development plan.

“This is an integral part of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, and we need to treat it that way,” said Commissioner Mary K. Shallenberger.

This at least kept with tradition, environmentalists said. Few victories at Bolsa Chica have been claimed with a single knockout punch.

Developer Signal Landmark, which had purchased 2,000 acres from a duck-hunting club that had sealed off the ocean’s path to Bolsa Chica, began tussling with the state in the 1970s, eventually agreeing to set aside about 300 acres.


A few years later, a newly formed activist group, Amigos de Bolsa Chica, filed a lawsuit against Signal, the state and an oil company that in part sought penalties for degrading the wetland.

It took a decade to resolve the court case and another after that for the State Lands Commission to agree to buy and restore 880 acres of Bolsa Chica.

More courtroom dramas and bruising political fights whittled down Signal’s initial proposal of 5,700 homes, commercial development, marinas, canals and a new harbor entrance to a single neighborhood.

The chief executive of Signal’s parent company once characterized the protracted wrangling as “approvals and lawsuits followed by more approvals and lawsuits.”


The spat lasted so long that the name of the developer on the application for ocean-view homes changed from Signal to California Coastal to Koll.

An Amigos founder and former Huntington Beach mayor, Shirley Dettloff, became a coastal commissioner, and the Land Trust was created to fight for Bolsa Chica’s upper mesa.

In 2005, the commission finally gave approval for Hearthside Homes -- a Signal relative -- to build 349 houses and a park on the upper mesa, which disappointed the Land Trust but also underscored the scope of activists’ previous victories.

At a predawn ceremony the following year, three decades after the wetlands warfare began, a 15-foot-tall, 400-foot-long sand berm was knocked down and the ocean and wetlands were reunited.


“It took so long because it was so important,” Dettloff said.

And, apparently, it wasn’t over.

This month, commission staff pitched a version of Parkside Estates that environmental groups applauded: chopping the development’s size in half, to 17 acres, and adding wetlands and buffers around them, in the process protecting a eucalyptus grove that lures Cooper’s hawks and white-tailed kites.

The developer said the shrunken blueprint would make construction too pricey and asked that the vote be put off until fall.


“With the Coastal Commission,” said Pearce, “living to fight another day is a victory in itself.”