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Oxnard Sued Over Dune Housing Plans

Environment: Fearing a bad precedent, groups take action against a project that would allow destruction of wetlands.


Three environmental groups are suing Oxnard and the California Coastal Commission for authorizing the destruction of dunes and a wetlands area to allow construction of a housing development.

The California Native Plant Society, the Sierra Club and the Wetland Action Network filed the lawsuit with hopes of saving a waterfront area in Oxnard they say is protected under the California Coastal Act.

"The Coastal Act has policies that are very strong to protect wetlands and sensitive habitat areas. Basically, the commission determined that those policies wouldn't apply in this case," said John Buse, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center office in Ventura, which represents the Sierra Club in the suit.

Steve Kaufmann, a lawyer for the North Shore at Mandalay Bay housing project, said the developer has agreed to create a much larger wetlands area up the coast from the development and form an increased number of new dunes in the same spot where the old ones would be excavated.

The site is across the street from the ocean, along a canal at 5th Street and Harbor Boulevard. The soil at the site is contaminated by nearly 30 years of dumping oil-field wastes.

The relocation of the wetlands and the excavation of dunes are necessary to remove any threat of contamination to ground water and to properly clean up the site for construction, Kaufmann said.

"This is sad and disappointing because it puts environmental activism on its head," Kaufmann said of the lawsuit, filed last week in Ventura County Superior Court.

Both sides generally agree the site is contaminated and the wetlands are not pristine, but environmentalists worry the decision to allow the destruction of such a habitat sets a bad precedent.

"The Coastal Commission and Oxnard have given developers throughout the state the green light to destroy wetlands," Alan Sanders, a Sierra Club spokesman, said in a prepared statement. "This decision must not stand."

But Kaufmann challenged that claim, saying coastal commissioners have authorized the destruction of degraded wetland areas in the interest of improving water quality in at least two other instances.

He cited a freeway project in San Diego and a case involving a barn in the Eureka area in Northern California, where cow manure was being stored to protect a nearby water supply.

Environmentalists, though, remain concerned and want to preserve the Oxnard site because it is one of Southern California's last remaining coastal dune habitats, Buse said.

Environmental groups fighting the project also believe the development could affect adjacent coastal resources in the area, including the snowy plover nesting habitat at Mandalay State Beach.

The lawsuit is the latest in a long line of hurdles for the project, which has been in the works for more than a decade. The plan, scaled down over time, calls for 300 single-family homes along 90 acres of ocean-view property.

The first setback occurred when the oil pollution was found; then environmentalists filed a lawsuit because of the presence of several hundred endangered milk vetch plants.

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