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Builder Announces Budget Cut for Bolsa Chica Restoration

September 26, 1993|SHELBY GRAD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The developer seeking to build 4,884 homes around the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve plans to postpone work and use less money than originally expected to restore sensitive wetlands.

The Bolsa Chica Co. wants to delay the start of major restoration activities by three years. And the company now expects that $40 million will be spent on the restoration, not $100 million as previously estimated.

The announcement, which comes several months before the County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on a portion of the project, has raised the ire of environmentalists who fear the company will build thousands of homes without restoring any wetlands.

But company officials said they are committed to restoring the plants and wildlife in the marshy area that has been damaged over the years by oil drilling.

"We are looking at a plan that is (economically) feasible and biologically superior," said Lucy Dunn, a vice president of the Bolsa Chica Co. "We are proposing a major preservation plan."

Dunn attributed the changes in part to difficulties in securing restoration funds from outside sources.

The company plans to provide $40 million toward the effort, she said. Until recently, company officials expected the Port of Long Beach to contribute millions more when it began a reclamation and harbor expansion project.

Under federal law, the port could only proceed with the reclamation if it agreed to improve ecologically sensitive areas elsewhere on the coast. Company officials had hoped that the port would help create a tidal habitat and tidal inlet at Bolsa Chica.

This summer, however, the port decided to go with a less ambitious expansion plan that does not require it to provide environmental mitigations, Dunn said.

Thus, to reduce restoration costs, the Bolsa Chica Co. had decided to delay for several years the removal of more than 100 oil wells on the property. Keeping the oil wells running prevents the company from paying for oil reserve rights, Dunn said.

She also maintains that $40 million will be enough to fund the company's restoration project.

As envisioned by the company, about 3,900 of the 4,884 homes would be built on a bluff area above the wetlands. This portion of the project requires the approval of both county supervisors and the California Coastal Commission.

The remaining 1,000 homes would be built on 100 acres of deteriorated wetlands. Because the wetlands would have to be destroyed to make way for the homes, the federal government must also approve this phase of the project.

The company's proposal derives from a 1989 agreement among state, county and city officials that allows some development around Bolsa Chica, the largest active wetlands in Southern California. In exchange for the right to build, the developer would help restore the remaining wetlands.

Some project opponents question whether the Bolsa Chica Co. can afford to restore any of the wetlands.

"They make noise about how wonderful it is that they will restore wetlands. . . . But they don't have the money," said Ralph Bauer, a Huntington Beach city councilman. "Those numbers are not worth the paper they are written on."

Bauer and others fear that if federal officials don't approve the 1,000 "wetlands" homes, the company will simply build the remaining 3,900 dwellings and forget about wetlands restoration.

They also called on the company to place $40 million in escrow as a sign that it is committed to the restoration.

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