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Coastal Panel Thickens the Plot at Bolsa Chica : Wetlands: Report calls for eliminating 900 homes from project but also relieving Koll Group of restoration effort.

November 04, 1995|DEBORAH SCHOCH and DEBRA CANO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — California Coastal Commission planners on Friday recommended that 900 homes be eliminated from a controversial development at Bolsa Chica, saying they want to protect one of the largest ecologically sensitive wetlands left in Southern California.

Their report drew sharp criticism from the developer and raised concern from environmentalists who don't want to see any development in the 1,600 acres that are home to many rare species.

The commission staff released a 260-page report suggesting numerous changes to the controversial plan by the Koll Real Estate Group for developing 3,300 homes. Under the changes, Koll could still build 2,500 homes on a mesa flanking the wetlands. But coastal planners want to eliminate the 900 homes slated for the wetlands because they do not conform with state laws for coastal development.

The planners' recommendations would relieve Koll from restoring most of the wetlands. Instead, the planners said other parties could step in to fund the restoration effort.

In addition, the planners seek a wider buffer between the mesa homes and the wetlands, which make up 1,100 acres of the Bolsa Chica area along Pacific Coast Highway next to Huntington Beach.

A Koll official criticized the new report and promised that the firm will ask the commission to reject it at its Nov. 16 meeting in Los Angeles.

"I heard someone describe this whole thing as the ostrich plan--basically don't deal with anyone's issue, just put your head in the sand," said Lucy Dunn, Koll senior vice president.

"Basically the staff put their heads in the sand and didn't resolve 20 years' worth of issues. They left so many unanswered questions that it is a shame," she said.

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And while some environmentalists applauded the report, they voiced concern that it might be rejected by the full commission. The report released Friday is meant as a recommendation to the 12 voting members of the Coastal Commission, which can modify the suggestions.

But a commission staff member defended the proposal to shave 900 homes and described the report as a sensitive compromise that would preserve the wetlands ecosystem while allowing Koll to develop on the nearby mesa.

"Southern California has lost 75% of its wetlands, and preservation of an increasingly scarce resource is a major goal of the coastal act," said Steve Rynas, Orange County area supervisor for the Coastal Commission.

The plan developed by Koll was approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors last year. In exchange for permission to build the homes, the firm agreed to spend $48 million to restore all wetlands areas except for about 200 acres where the 900 homes would be built. The restored area would be publicly owned, probably by the state, Koll officials said.

At Koll, Dunn questioned what would happen to the wetlands if coastal commissioners adopt the scaled-down plan.

"It's a very sad day, because there's no wetlands restoration and no public ownership of privately held land," she said.

Chuck Nelson, president of an environmental group known as Amigos de Bolsa Chica, said he is disappointed that the commission staff is not suggesting a mechanism to fund wetlands restoration.

"We're getting development, but we're not getting restoration," Nelson said. "This really does leave a big question on what you do about restoration."

Rynas suggested that Koll could sell the wetlands to another party, such as a nonprofit group that could restore the area.

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Still in doubt is the future of an alternative to Koll's restoration plan developed by the federal government in which the U.S. Department of the Interior would buy the entire wetlands, while Koll would build 2,500 homes on the mesa. The restoration would be financed in part by $62 million contributed by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which, in turn, would be permitted to proceed with expanding their ports.

The federal plan, however, foundered last month when Koll turned down a $17.5-million offer from the federal government. Officials say talks are continuing, but it remains unclear whether Koll and the government will be able to agree on a price.

The commission staff report recommends that the Fieldstone Co. of Newport Beach, which owns 42 acres in the lowlands, be given the option to transfer its development rights to Koll, enabling Koll to increase the density of its mesa development.

Dave Langlois, president of the Fieldstone Co., said Friday that he had not yet seen the report but that his company supports the Koll plan to build homes in the lowlands.

Langlois said that under the Koll plan, his company would build 200 of the 900 homes proposed in the lowlands.

Huntington Beach city officials Friday applauded the coastal planners' report.

"Philosophically we're in tune with them on a number of issues," said Huntington Beach Planning Director Howard Zelefsky. He said the report supports "the city's concept of protecting the wetlands and providing public access to the wetlands."

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