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Federal Proposal to Buy Wetlands to Be Discussed


HUNTINGTON BEACH — The long-simmering debate over the future of the Bolsa Chica wetlands is likely to heat up again on Wednesday as the California Coastal Commission considers the first of two competing plans for restoration of the ecologically sensitive area.

Under the first plan, to be discussed at the commission's meeting in San Diego, the federal government would purchase and restore the entire 1,050-acre wetlands area as a wildlife refuge, while allowing the Koll Real Estate Group to construct 2,500 homes on the surrounding mesa. The money for the refuge would come, in part, from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The competing Koll plan, approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors last year and to be taken up by the coastal commission at a separate meeting next month, calls for the Koll group to pay for the restoration in exchange for permission to build 3,300 houses. About 900 of those would be in the wetlands.

The Coastal Commission's staff has recommended approval of the federal plan.

"This is a unique opportunity to actually move toward restoration of Bolsa Chica in the whole," said Jack Liebster, a commission spokesman.

The proposal includes provisions for restoring 384 acres of degraded wetlands within four years using $62 million contributed by the two ports. In exchange the ports would be allowed to expand their port operations at their current sites.

"We feel that with this agreement and all the federal agencies on-board, the assurances are there that restoration will occur, " Liebster said.

If the commission approves a Bolsa Chica plan, it would be a significant step toward resolving more than a decade of debate over the wetlands, which sit just off Pacific Coast Highway near Huntington Beach. The next stop would be a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lucy Dunn, senior vice president of the Koll group, said Monday that her company plans to urge the commission to postpone any decision on the matter for at least a month.

The company has been negotiating the terms of the proposed federal sale.

"We still need more time to work with the federal government on trying to make the sale work," she said. "Until that's done, it's premature to be working on any wetlands plan."

"The issue now is making sure that the funding is in place."

Officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior who are involved in the discussions could not be reached for comment.

The federal restoration plan was being greeted with enthusiasm on both sides of the debate.

"We are encouraged by the conceptual plan," said Adrianne Morrison, executive director of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, an environmental group that had helped the Koll group develop its original plan. "We favor the opportunity to pursue the federal plan. For Bolsa Chica to be a [federal] fish and wildlife refuge would be an honor for our community; only a few years ago it wouldn't have been possible."

Jan Vandersloot, vice president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which opposes any development near the wetlands, had similar thoughts about the federal proposal. "It's a better plan than what the county has decided to do," he said.

The commission meets at San Diego's Clarion Hotel Bayview beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Members will consider only the federal plan this week, then will review the second proposal at next month's meeting.

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