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Coastal Panel Delays Decision on Edison's Plan


SAN DIEGO — Caught in a web of politics, legal threats and conflicting scientific claims, the California Coastal Commission has delayed voting on whether to let Southern California Edison reduce its coastline restoration efforts in San Diego and Orange counties.

The delay, which came at 12:20 a.m. Thursday after an emotional 9 1/2-hour meeting, is a defeat for the giant utility and a victory for Peter Douglas, the commission's embattled executive director, and boosters of the San Dieguito River Valley Park in northern San Diego County.

By the time the commission considers the Edison issue in February, Democratic appointees will most likely have regained control of the commission from the Republican appointees who have formed a majority for two years.

The delay came as both Edison officials and park boosters threatened to sue if they did not get their way and Republicans and Democrats on the commission bickered about who was doing more back-room politicking.

Stuck in the balance are unresolved questions about the size of the kelp reef to be built off the coast between San Clemente and Camp Pendleton, the number of acres of wetlands to be restored at the San Dieguito Lagoon near Del Mar, and whether restoration efforts will be undertaken at Ormond Beach in Ventura County in exchange for trimming those at San Dieguito.

In 1991, Edison agreed to restore 150 acres at San Dieguito and build a 300-acre reef off San Clemente--all to mitigate environmental damage done by the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Edison wants to trim the San Dieguito project significantly and to build a 16.8-acre kelp reef rather than a 300-acre one.

The company asserts that the dredging necessary to create the kind of fisheries habitat at San Dieguito that environmentalists want would increase the chances of serious flooding and leave Edison liable for flood losses. Also, Edison points to reports showing that San Onofre is doing far less damage to the native kelp beds than feared.

On both points, Edison's scientific stance is opposed by evidence gathered by scientists for environmental groups and public agencies. Douglas, architect of the 1991 agreement with Edison, recommended that the commission reject Edison's request to amend that agreement.

At the commission's October meeting, it appeared as if the issue was heading to a conclusion, with the San Dieguito park governing body leaning toward accepting Edison's slimmed-down plan.

But on election day Republicans lost control of the Assembly, which means that a new Democratic Assembly speaker will be able to replace four Republican appointees with four Democratic appointees. If the past is any indication, Democratic appointees will be less sympathetic to Edison than Republican members.

On Wednesday, the San Dieguito park governing board told commission members it could no longer accept the Edison plan and insisted that the commission stick with the 150-acre plan of 1991. Park boosters preferred to see if they could get a better deal from the commission when it is controlled by Democrats.

"You seemed to be so close last month and now we're all over the map," complained commission member Bill Brennan, a Republican appointee.

Edison officials sought commission approval for the reduced mitigation plan despite the withdrawal of permission by the San Dieguito park authority to use the 89 acres it owns in the San Dieguito Lagoon.

An Edison attorney suggested that the company would consider using its powers of eminent domain to acquire the property. San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater responded that the park's joint powers authority would consider legal action of its own if the commission approved a wetlands plan without the authority's backing.

In the end, all four Democratic appointees and four of eight Republican appointees decided that the issue was too muddled for the commission to decide without further study and negotiation.

"I think the greatest Christmas gift I can give is to let the Democrats sort this out," said Patricia Randa, a Republican appointee.

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