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FightingOff Development Is Tough but Not Impossible

September 28, 1990|DANA PARSONS

In the Old West, the railroads ran the towns.

In the New West, the developers run the towns.

And just as it was a losing proposition to take on the railroads in the old days ( "Say, isn't that your barn on fire?" ), neither has anybody gotten rich taking on Orange County developers in the last 20 years.

Don't worry, pardner, they won't set your barn on fire. No, the level of public disagreement has become more civilized in the last 100 years. Nowadays, most citizens can be battered into submission simply by contemplating the amount of time and energy it takes to oppose any significant project.

Which makes the current success of a citizens' effort in Seal Beach all the more remarkable.

At this moment, the $200-million Mola Development Corp. project in Seal Beach--already four years in the making--is stalled. Since last year, citizen objections to the project have turned a 4-1 council majority for the project into 3-2 against.

It has been a long, grueling fight, and it's not over. Just to show they're good sports about the council's change of mind, Mola has filed an $11-million lawsuit against the city and some council members. The company also has resubmitted the same plan the council rejected in June.

With $200 million at stake, you play for keeps.

"We want to give them another opportunity to evaluate the proposal," Mola official Tim Roberts says. "We don't believe they did the first time."

To Galen Ambrose, words like that merely mean residents have to stay in fighting shape.

Ambrose is one of the Seal Beach residents in the forefront of the fight. "We knew our chances were slim, if not none," Ambrose said the other day in recalling the effort to stop the project. "We knew it would be an uphill fight. We knew we had to change the minds of some council people. It took us two years to show people we were legitimate and not some kooks off the side of the street."

With two Planning Commission meetings and two City Council meetings a month, part of the problem in contesting the Mola proposal has been raw tenacity. Sitting through marathon meetings of public bodies is something development company officials are paid to do, but for the average citizen it can be the equivalent of having root canal surgery while watching a Chinese opera.

Another task was convincing local residents that whatever Mola wants, Mola doesn't necessarily get.

"People didn't think we could do it," Ambrose said. "They saw the votes up there (on the original council approval) so they thought the best we could do was negotiate a compromise."

But after the Wetlands Restoration Society that Ambrose co-founded won a lawsuit that stalled the project, more citizens started thinking Mola could be beaten, Ambrose said.

Ambrose estimated his group has spent $20,000 fighting the project. That doesn't take into account the hours spent studying the voluminous paperwork and formulating a strategy to beat back the development.

The effort isn't lost on Lee Whittenberg, a Seal Beach city official closely involved with the project. "I have three or four different environmental impact reports on that project, and each one of those is 200 or 300 pages thick. There are numerous staff reports, special studies on restoring wetlands, soil studies that are pretty thick and difficult to read. . . ."

Aside from the knowledge needed, Whittenberg said, there's the problem of time. "I came here after the project was approved and in the last year, we had several meetings on resubmission (of the project) that started at 7 or 7:30 at night and we (were) getting done at 3:30 or 4 in the morning. That really puts a crimp in someone's home life. There were cases where I'd be getting home from a meeting at the same time my wife was getting up to go to work."

Ambrose, a controller for an air conditioning company, said he and his wife, Sydney, have the time, largely because they don't have children.

So far, it's been worth it. He'd like to savor the victory. He knows he can't.

"We're feeling good that we've come this far, but we know we have major hurdles to overcome," Ambrose said. "We can't gloat. The land is worth too much" for Mola to back down.

If nothing else, the success against Mola has shown citizens that developers aren't invulnerable, Ambrose said. "We're keeping the public aware that even though the landowner has rights, citizens also have rights. The (development companies) have instilled in the public the idea that because they own the property, they can build on it."

Ambrose is now convinced Seal Beach is solidly against the project, which would have added more than 1,000 people to the population.

So, how would he advise other citizen groups to fight unwanted development?

"What it takes is getting the right people with the knowledge to work with you, then laying out a plan and sticking to it. And not compromising."

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