HUNTINGTON BEACH — The news streaked through the environmental network one night last week: Huntington Beach Mayor Shirley S. Dettloff is being named to a key post on the California Coastal Commission.
Some praised the move, calling her a knowledgeable moderate on coastal issues. Some blasted it, saying she caved in during negotiations over an important local wetlands. But nearly everyone agrees that Dettloff--a veteran of the Bolsa Chica wetlands wars--is about to become a key player at a critical time in coastal history.
Fights are brewing over three controversial projects that will shape the future of Orange County's coast.
Expensive villas, a five-star hotel and an exclusive beachfront resort would rise on some of the county's last remaining open coastline if the projects are blessed by the powerful commission.
Residents appear divided over whether the projects signal a robust economic recovery or transformation of the coast into a playground for the well-to-do.
Enter Dettloff, who will be the sole Orange County voice on a commission due to vote in the next 12 to 15 months on the Hellman Ranch project in Seal Beach, the Treasure Island resort in Laguna Beach and a luxury resort in Crystal Cove State Park. The controversial Dana Point Headlands project could go before the panel in 1999.
The 62-year-old mayor, who entered politics via the League of Women Voters and the Bolsa Chica fights, said Friday that she is committed to coastal issues.
"It's something I've been interested in for a lifetime," said Dettloff, who can still remember signing a petition in the early '70s supporting the Coastal Act, which produced the commission.
"It was a good idea then, and it's even a better idea now," she said. "Year after year, when the act comes under attack, citizens rally and say, 'We want our coast protected.' "
Dettloff calls Bolsa Chica her "training ground." She has won both supporters and enemies in environmental ranks, due largely to her role in the acrimonious fight over Koll Real Estate Group's longtime plans to build hundreds of homes in the Bolsa Chica wetlands. The project has shrunk to 1,235 homes on a nearby mesa.
Some credit Dettloff for leading the way to last year's state purchase of the wetlands, calling her a moderate who seeks solutions. Others say she caved in to development interests during long-ago negotiations.
The behind-the-scenes cross-fire over her appointment Wednesday by the Senate Rules Committee hints at the importance of her new role. With the regional economic upturn, some conservationists said, coastal commissioners face heightened pressure from developers.
"To be effective, she's going to have to be able to confront that wall of money and pressure and lobbying each and every month, and some commissioners are able to do that better than others," said Mark Massara, Sierra Club director of coastal programs.
The Sierra Club is hopeful Dettloff will bring a strong conservation ethic to the job, he said. "This job requires huge amounts of backbone."
Some local environmentalists say Dettloff lacked backbone in dealing with Koll at Bolsa Chica.
"She's essentially a Koll supporter. She'd probably deny it, but actions speak louder than words," said Gordon LaBedz of the Surfrider Foundation's Huntington/Long Beach chapter. LaBedz favored Long Beach City Councilman Alan Lowenthal, who instead will serve as Dettloff's alternate.
But coastal activist Ann Notthoff, senior planner with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote the Rules Committee on Thursday to say, "I have had the pleasure of working with Shirley for more than 15 years on coastal protection issues, and she is a fine choice."
And Melvin Nutter, head of the League for Coastal Protection and a former commission chairman, said, "I am delighted with the appointment of Shirley."
Dettloff recounted in an interview last week how she became interested in coastal issues soon after moving to Huntington Beach in 1964. She was among the first members of the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a veteran environmental group fighting to save the wetlands as far back as the 1970s, when a marina was planned there.
The Amigos helped fashion a compromise plan in the late 1980s that would allow some wetlands homes but preserve hundreds of acres of wetlands.
Koll Senior Vice President Lucy Dunn says that in helping forge the compromise plan, "Shirley was perceived by the development community as a moderate who would listen and not a hard-line philosophical environmentalist. She was a practical environmentalist who recognized that there had to be a win-win."
Dettloff defended that 1980s compromise as moving the preservation cause forward. "Some of the individuals that are critical were young then, and I was on the front lines. I was in Sacramento walking the halls." Now she is assisting the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, a group working toward public purchase of the mesa, she said.