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Wetlands Housing Project Prevails Over Environmentalists' Appeal

Bolsa Chica: Despite opponents who vow to carry on a 32-year fight, Orange County supervisors OK plan for 388 houses near Huntington Beach.


In the latest skirmish in a 32-year war, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously rejected a bid by environmentalists to derail plans for nearly 400 homes on part of the Bolsa Chica mesa near Huntington Beach.

Supervisors, who have historically green-lighted the developer's proposals, endorsed the Brightwater project on a 4-0 vote. Environmentalists plan to continue challenging the developer, Hearthside Homes, which still needs approval from state and federal agencies before construction begins.

"We expected the board to pave over the mesa," said Paul Arms, a member of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which appealed the county Planning Commission's approval of the project.

Brightwater would have 388 homes, an underground water reservoir and 28 acres of open space on the 106-acre upper bench of the two-tier mesa.

Lucy Dunn, executive vice president of Hearthside Homes, said, "We were very pleased that the board agreed with the Planning Commission."

The California Coastal Commission is expected to consider the plan in early 2003, she said.

Tuesday's vote is the latest twist in the long-running saga of Bolsa Chica, an unincorporated coastal wetlands area surrounded by Huntington Beach. Developers originally proposed a marina, a hotel and as many as 5,700 homes in the late 1970s. That plan and several others have been approved by county and state agencies, only to be scaled back after environmental legal challenges.

In the early 1990s, 4,884 homes were proposed around 1,100 acres of preserved wetlands. By 1996, the project had shrunk to 3,300 homes. A year later, the state paid $25 million for 880 acres. That parcel was added to 300 acres that landowner Signal Landmark had given to the state for wetlands preservation in 1973. The resulting Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is the largest wetlands in Southern California. A separate project to restore tidal flushing to the wetlands is underway with $100 million from the state and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Today, the struggle is over the remaining 230-acre mesa that overlooks the wetlands. Hearthside wants to build as many as 1,235 homes on the upper and lower parts of the mesa. The fate of the lower mesa is tied up in the courts. The county Planning Commission approved the Brightwater plan in May.

The Land Trust appealed, arguing that Hearthside is trying to piecemeal a larger project on the entire mesa and that the development would destroy an archeologically significant 8,000-year-old Native American coastal village. The trust also argued that environmental documents were outdated, planned buffers to protect sensitive habitat are too small and compensation for the impact on the environment and traffic is improperly left to the future.

"Enough is enough," Huntington Beach resident Joseph Jeffrey said. "This project has been studied, revised, compromised and modified more than any other project in Orange County. It's time to move on."

Supervisor Tom Wilson said the downsizing of the project helped make it acceptable.

Environmentalists vowed to continue fighting the project.

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