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In a Surprise Development, Bolsa Chica Just Might Survive

Huntington Beach plan for preservation shows a welcome change in attitude about county's natural resources.

March 11, 2001|EVAN C. HENRY | Evan C. Henry is president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust

By now, even the most casual Orange County newsreader knows that development at the Bolsa Chica mesa overlooking the coast of Huntington Beach is highly controversial. The latest drama in the 25-year-plus history of development plans includes the unanimous vote of the Coastal Commission in November to allow only limited development on the mesa, followed by the developer's lawsuit to reverse the decision.

I have wondered why this property is not covered already with million-dollar houses, given the pro-development history of Orange County. Fortunately it is not, and the past is less important than the fact that this wild and spectacular coastal property is still essentially undeveloped. The Coastal Commission ruling not only saved more than 100 acres of the mesa but, more important, signaled that the time is ripe to buy all the Bolsa Chica for future generations.

The Bolsa Chica of today presents us with crossing value curves. The speculative real estate value has continuously declined over the past 25 years at the same time the ecological and open space values have risen.

We are now at the nexus of the two curves, where citizens, foundations, public agencies and the legislature can raise money for purchase. The primary stumbling block is the denial by the owner, Signal Landmark, that the Bolsa Chica Mesa never really had the profit potential carried on the books for all these years. This is evident in the unfortunate rhetoric of the developer's lawsuit.

The developer purports that the Coastal Commission took away its right to develop, although it actually would not have a right to develop any part of the mesa until it was granted through Coastal Commission proceedings. Moreover, the land was not zoned for development when it was acquired.

Simply put, you can't have something taken away from you that you didn't have in the first place.

But the rhetoric also helps frame a larger perspective. Webster's Dictionary defines natural resources as those actual and potential forms of wealth supplied by nature, such as coal, oil, water power, arable land, etc.

In this traditional definition, there is no mention of environmental, ecological or other less profit-related values. In contrast, the California Coastal Act protects coastal resources consisting of special marine and land habitat areas, wetlands, lagoons and estuaries, areas possessing significant recreational value, highly scenic areas and archeological sites, to list a few.

These incorporate a much more modern view of natural resources, one that recognizes that not all value is related solely to exploitation for monetary profit. The value is in maintenance and enhancement of the quality of life for the environment and humans along the California coast.

The Bolsa Chica controversy also illustrates changing attitudes toward development in Orange County. When there was an abundance of open space, our environmental standards could be lax. One development in a vast area didn't seem to affect the rest of us.

But as density has increased, more planning and control has been necessary to protect the rights of the citizenry over aggressive individual development interests. And ultimately, as we now approach an Orange County where so much critical open space has been developed, we see more action to protect the qualities of the places in which we live.

Orange County's environmental leaders are now bolstered by the ranks of a full generation of Earth Day activists spurred into action by factors like overdevelopment, the rising incidence of beach closures and traffic congestion.

It is not out of nostalgia that environmental awareness and activism are on the rise in Orange County. Rather, it arises from the realization that the quality of life is being impacted by exploitation of our living space. President Lyndon Johnson, in a message to Congress in 1965, said, "We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities. Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted." Bolsa Chica embodies the ethic of this message.

The resolution to support the purchase of Bolsa Chica passed last week by the Huntington Beach City Council has to be lauded for putting this ethic into action.

Bolsa Chica is one of the last and most ecologically valuable open spaces in Orange County. We must work together to acquire it, at a fair price, for the benefit of all, forever.

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