The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to swap parts of the Tustin or El Toro Marine Corps air stations for 1,700 environmentally sensitive but privately owned acres in Huntington Beach, a federal official said Wednesday.
Richard Moore, head of the service's real estate operations, said the federal agency was working with the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, a local environmental organization, in developing a plan to acquire the property, commonly known as the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, owned by the Koll Real Estate Group.
Koll wants to build 4,286 homes on 400 acres of the 1,700 acres and restore about 1,100 acres to wetlands.
Members of the land trust, which opposes the project, met with Moore in Portland on Monday and urged the wildlife service to pursue the land swap.
But all of this is news to Koll, the military, the county and cities involved in the base closures. None has been contacted by either the trust nor the wildlife service.
"This is a fantasy perpetrated by the land trust," said Koll Senior Vice President Lucy Dunn. "We need to deal with facts."
Both Moore and land trust spokeswoman Flossie Horgan confirmed that talks about a swap had been occurring without the company's knowledge.
Tustin city officials also expressed surprise. Dana Ogdon, senior planner with the city, said the Fish and Wildlife Service missed its "window of opportunity" to acquire a portion of the Tustin Marine base, which is scheduled to close by 1999.
After Congress approved the closure of the base, federal agencies were given a deadline to submit proposals for its use. The Fish and Wildlife Service didn't submit one, Ogdon said.
"As it stands now, what they are proposing is impossible as far as the Tustin base is concerned," Ogdon said. "It just cannot happen."
Nor, Moore said, has the idea of swapping El Toro or Tustin base land been presented to the Navy. Both it and the Pentagon would need to approve the plan.
Moore said that Tustin and El Toro are "only two possibilities we are looking at." He said the wildlife service is looking at other surplus military properties.
Horgan said the land trust is undaunted in its effort to stop the Koll wetlands development.
"This is the largest unprotected wetland ecosystem south of San Francisco," he said. "The interest by the federal agency in Bolsa Chica represents an awareness that this land has an importance that stretches beyond Orange County."
In an April 1 letter to officials of the trust, Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Marvin L. Plenert praised their effort.
"We look forward to using your organization as a resource and ally as we consider the alternatives that will ultimately lead to the protection of this unique wildlife area," said Plenert's letter. "As you have suggested, one possibility is the use of excess military land as trading stock to foster the acquisition. We are currently looking at the possibility of such exchanges at Bolsa Chica as well as other areas."
The Koll project has been mired in controversy since it was proposed. The Huntington Beach City Council was critical of an environmental impact report done by the county and hired a consultant and lawyers to review it. That review is still pending.