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Disney Urged to Accept Concessions on Bill Seeking Resort Landfill


SACRAMENTO — Mickey Mouse is finding that making laws is a lot like making movies: Plenty of cutting and splicing goes into the final version.

That political lesson was brought home this week to Walt Disney Co. executives as a bill to allow the entertainment giant to build a $2.8-billion theme resort on landfill along the Long Beach shoreline hit uncertain seas in the Legislature.

Even as the measure awaits its first committee hearing, lawmakers are pushing Disney to accept such concessions as restoring Southern California wetlands in exchange for allowing the landfill, spelling out the company's commitment to establish an ocean education program and ensuring that its Long Beach employees reflect the area's multiracial population.

These potential hurdles were placed in Disney's way just as it was removing another barrier. Disney officials on Tuesday said they have agreed in concept to amendments sought by the staff of the state Coastal Commission to limit the scope of the legislation for the Disney project.

David Malmuth, vice president of Disney Development Co., said Coastal Commission officials "were trying to narrow the bill so that it wouldn't be a precedent" for other projects on the coast. Malmuth said Disney has "no problem with that."

Even if the Legislature passes the Port Disney bill and it is signed by Gov. Pete Wilson, the Long Beach project would need approval from the Coastal Commission and other government agencies.

As of Wednesday, it remained unclear whether Disney's concessions to the Coastal Commission would be sufficient to provide clear sailing for the company's bill through the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee--the first stop for the measure as it makes it way through the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the committee postponed a hearing on several bills, including Disney's, because most of the members were absent.

The Disney measure, carried by Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno), is supported by the city of Long Beach and numerous civic groups, but opposed by a variety of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

Disney officials and some legislators predicted that when the bill, now scheduled to be considered on May 28, is finally heard it will draw support from a majority of the eight-member committee. But Sen. Henry J. Mello (D-Watsonville), a panel member who is opposed to the Disney measure, cautioned that if the company "had the fifth vote, they'd be over at Brannan's," a local watering hole.

The purpose of the legislation is to allow portions of the Port Disney project to be built on 250 acres of new landfill in Queensway Bay, which would use at least 20 million cubic yards of material. At issue is whether landfill can be used for such recreation facilities as an amusement park.

Manuevering on the bill has become part of the competition Disney set in motion between Long Beach and Anaheim over where its second Southern California theme park will be built.

Just last week, Disney announced plans for a $3-billion expansion at Anaheim's Disneyland that would include a second theme park patterned after the company's EPCOT Center in Florida.

Last year, the company unveiled plans for Port Disney, a Long Beach resort that would include Disney Sea, a theme park with rides and attractions; five new hotels; retail shops; a marina and cruise ship terminal.

Disney is expected to make a decision by the end of the year on whether to proceed with the Anaheim or Long Beach projects. Disney officials have not ruled out ultimately building both projects.

V. John White, a lobbyist for the American Oceans Campaign, an environmental group that opposes the measure for Port Disney, asserted that the "purpose of the bill is to leverage Anaheim to give concessions" to Disney.

In addition to environmental groups, several members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee have voiced reservations about the bill and are seeking more concessions from Disney.

For instance, Mello said the most important issue to him is that the legislation direct Disney to restore four acres of wetland habitat for each acre of land that the company fills. Said Mello: "The point is I don't want to see any part of the coastline lost to development unless (there is) mitigation."

Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), another panel member, said he favors the project but agrees with Mello about wetlands restoration. He said he also wants Disney to guarantee that it will institute an ocean education program.

Yet another point was raised by Committee Chairman Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose). He said he wants to insert language in the measure to ensure that Disney hire ethnic and racial minorities so that the resort's staff mirrors the Long Beach area's polyglot population.

White said the issues raised by the senators have shown Disney officials that they face a serious challenge in getting their bill to the governor's desk. "If Disney wanted to walk through the Legislature and win a free pass . . . it's harder than they thought," White said.

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