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California and the West

Controversial Seal Beach Wetlands Project OKd

Development: Coastal panel narrowly approves golf course plan. Environmentalists predict a legal fight.

September 10, 1998|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EUREKA — The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday narrowly approved plans for a Seal Beach housing development that call for filling in wetlands for a golf course The approval caps an acrimonious battle over one of the last remnants of wetlands along the Southern California coast.

The 6-5 vote appears to be the first time the commission has allowed coastal wetlands to be filled for a golf course, and state officials said the decision could have implications for development elsewhere on the coast.

The decision, after years of debate over what to do with the Hellman Ranch property, was immediately criticized by environmentalists, who said the action violated state law meant to protect the California coastline.

"It is illegal to put a golf course there--to say nothing of ill-advised," said Ellen Stern Harris, a former coastal commissioner who is executive director of the environmental group Fund for the Environment.

But Seal Beach officials hailed the vote, declaring that the project balances the developer's needs with environmental concerns.

"How can you not be happy?" said Mayor George Brown. "It's a win-win situation."

The fight over the Hellman Ranch project, a proposed gated community and golf course on a 196-acre site in Orange County, illustrated the tough choices environmental regulators face in a region that has already lost as much as 90% of its salt marshes and other coastal wetlands to development.

Although the developers have promised to restore or create 39 acres of wetlands as part of their project, critics said that natural wetlands are too precious a commodity to sacrifice for an 18-hole golf course.

Pivotal to the debate is whether the California Coastal Act allows the filling of wetlands for a golf course. The commission's executive director, Peter Douglas, and the commission staff both say that the act, which governs coastal development, bars such filling. The latest staff report on the project recommended that commissioners approve the gated community, with conditions, but reject the golf course.

Douglas, in fact, warned this week that allowing a golf course on the site could set a precedent for other coastal wetlands.

But Hellman officials maintained that the commission was empowered to approve the filling and offered lengthy legal arguments to buttress their case.

Hanging over the debate was a May 1997 ruling in which a San Diego Superior Court judge found that the commission erred in allowing homes on the Bolsa Chica wetlands near Huntington Beach and permitting the filling of a nearby pond. The ruling, now on appeal, did not address golf courses, but it has made some commissioners wary of Coastal Act constraints on wetlands destruction.

Environmentalists predicted a similar legal fight over Hellman Ranch.

"For a commission that wants to be known as having an environmental legacy, they're on the verge of falling apart," said Mark Massara, director of coastal programs for the Sierra Club.

The Hellman Ranch project calls for 70 luxury homes, a golf course open to the public, nine acres of restored wetlands and 30 acres of created wetlands. It would also earmark some oil fields for future wetlands restoration and provide public access trails.

Seal Beach city officials have staunchly supported the project, saying it is vastly superior to earlier plans, one of which included 1,000 dwellings. And developer Hellman Properties LLC has advertised the project as an environmentally sensitive one that would keep the vast majority of the plot free of buildings.

"To deny this project," former Seal Beach Mayor Gwen Forsythe warned the panel, "will clearly be the most anti-environmental action this commission has ever undertaken."

But criticism from environmentalists mounted over the spring and summer. Some critics accused Hellman of exaggerating the "eco-friendly" facets of the project, such as referring to the golf course as open space.

The commission twice delayed votes at the last moment, in April and in June.

Project critics were outraged when the final vote was set for the commission's meeting in Eureka, 700 miles from Seal Beach and, with air fare at least $240, far too pricey for many people to attend.

But the fast-track guidelines for coastal projects required the commission to act by Saturday. Hellman alone could have delayed a vote until the commission meets again in Southern California this fall. But Hellman officials countered that the project has already been reviewed at standing-room-only sessions in Long Beach and Santa Barbara.

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