The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday postponed its vote on a housing project it once rejected because of its close proximity to protected habitat near the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.
Shea Homes, a 50-acre, 111-home project at 17301 Graham St., north of the Wintersburg Channel, was initially approved by the Huntington Beach City Council in 2002. But a decade-long battle between the developer and environmentalists has kept it from taking shape.
The commission elected to continue the issue pending clarification on mitigation efforts at the wetlands.
Siding with the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which argues that Shea Homes will have grave environmental impacts on the wetlands, the coastal commission in October voted against the project.
The decision led Shea Homes to sue the commission for $55 million, but the case never went to trial and was settled privately.
Part of the settlement required the commission to bring back the project, as it was presented in October for a vote.
The only difference, however, are the guidelines under which the commission planned to consider the project this time around.
The commission used the guidelines of the California Coastal Act, which sets the rules on development in the coastal zone, when it considered and ultimately rejected Shea Homes last year. This time, the commission planned to use the rules of the Local Coastal Program, which is specific to Huntington Beach, to make its decision.
The coastal act allows each jurisdiction to develop its own coastal program specific to its needs. All local coastal programs must align with the guidelines of the statewide act and be approved by the coastal commission.
Although the commission planned to use different guidelines, the land trust doesn't see the Shea proposal differently.
"We see conflicts," said Councilwoman Connie Boardman, who is also the president of the land trust. "We see reasons to deny the project."
Given its location, Shea Homes will have to build what's called a Vegetated Flood Protection Feature, a levee-like barrier to protect the homes in case of a flood.
Shea Homes must also comply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Floodplain Management Requirements, according to the coastal commission's staff report.
To provide the necessary flood protection, the barrier will be built between the bluff on the western edge of the project and the Wintersburg Channel on the south, the staff report said.
The report indicates that the location of the barrier "presents the only feasible option for adequately insuring protection" of the existing 170-acre development."
Alternative locations are mentioned in the staff report, but were dismissed for being too expensive or less feasible.
In its letter to the coastal commission, the land trust states that the barrier violates the local coastal program — the guidelines under which the coastal commission will consider the project.
The local coastal program prohibits the building of protective devices as part of new developments.
But the local coastal program also states in another passage that, "Drainage systems and other such facilities necessary to ensure public health or safety may be allowed provided that bluff alteration is restricted to the minimum necessary and is done in the least environmentally damaging feasible manner."
The land trust acknowledges the contradicting statements of the local coastal program and sites the balancing provision, which must be used when there are conflicts between policies in the coastal program.
The balancing provision in the coastal program states that, "When policies within the Coastal Element conflict, such conflicts shall be resolved in a manner which on balance is the most protective of significant coastal resources."
The land trust argues that not building the barrier would be the most protective option.
In a response to the land trust's objections, coastal commission staff, which is recommending approval of the project, said the two passages in the local coastal program do not conflict and that the barrier is needed to protect already existing developments as well as the Shea Homes project.