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City Battles Mesa Homes

Huntington Beach is trying to make it difficult for a developer to get water to the project overlooking the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

September 21, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

After two decades of lawsuits, regulatory action and stiff opposition from environmentalists, once-ambitious plans to build marinas and thousands of homes in the Bolsa Chica wetlands have shrunk to a few hundred dwellings.

Now, Huntington Beach wants to make it as difficult as possible to supply water to what little remains of the grand scheme.

In the latest skirmish over Bolsa Chica development, the city has refused to cooperate with Southern California Water Co. and Hearthside Homes, which is trying to move forward with the construction of almost 400 houses on the mesa overlooking the wetlands.

To get water to the project, the privately owned utility must build a 6.7-mile, 18-inch-diameter pipeline from its Cypress facilities down Bolsa Chica Street to the mesa and the wetlands, which are in an unincorporated area controlled by the county. The pipeline must cut through Huntington Beach.

Municipal officials have refused to grant Southern California Water a franchise to use city streets for the pipeline's right of way. They say the project has not been fully approved, the firm has other options to obtain the needed right of way, and the state might buy the development site.

Consequently, the utility notified the city last month that it will rely on more complicated condemnation proceedings to secure the right of way it wants along city streets, launching yet another expensive and time-consuming legal battle if the city contests the action.

"I can't speculate on why we didn't get a franchise," said James Gallagher, a vice president of customer service for Southern California Water.

He noted, however, that "the city is opposed to development in Bolsa Chica and has taken whatever opportunities it has to delay or stop the project."

Huntington Beach City Council members met in closed session last week to discuss the legal issues and their options. More talks are planned for the next council meeting.

Assistant City Administrator William P. Workman declined to discuss the situation, except to say, "This has a lot of unique politics surrounding it."

The proposed pipeline also has run into opposition in Seal Beach, where planning commissioners decided the water main was inconsistent with the city's general plan. Hearthside officials say it is no longer necessary to build any part of the line in Seal Beach.

Original plans for the wetlands and mesas envisioned 5,700 homes, a 75-acre marina, a breakwater, and a 600-foot-wide navigable channel across Pacific Coast Highway to the ocean.

Over 18 years, however, the project has been dramatically scaled back through court decisions, changes requested by regulatory agencies and stiff opposition from environmental organizations.

Opponents have included Huntington Beach residents and politicians.

Today, 1,235 homes are planned for the site, but Hearthside has decided to proceed, for the time being, with 388 homes on about 100 acres. The county has approved the development. It is awaiting consideration by the California Coastal Commission.

Further complicating the situation, the state might purchase the property with funds from Proposition 50, an initiative approved by voters last year designed to preserve the quality of California's water and purchase and restore wetlands.

State officials say an appraisal is pending.

The pipeline dispute began in 1996 when Hearthside started negotiating for a water supply with Huntington Beach. Concerned about local opposition, the developer also initiated talks with Southern California Water and concluded an agreement with the company in 1997.

In October 2000, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the company's plan to provide water to the development. The PUC noted that Huntington Beach was not willing to provide water unless the development were annexed by the city.

City officials say Hearthside, however, did not want to be annexed because the builder believed the county was more friendly toward developers.

In February 2002, the water company applied for a city franchise to begin construction of the pipeline. Almost a year went by without a response.

Attorneys for the water company say in court records that the application was transferred many times to different departments and officials. They also said council members tried to stall a decision due to local opposition.

In November 2002, the council finally decided to take no action on the franchise and continued the matter "to a date uncertain." The water company sued two months later and obtained a court order compelling the city either to deny or approve the franchise agreement in a manner consistent with the PUC's approval of the pipeline.

Last month, the council rejected the franchise and appealed the court ruling. City attorneys argue that the court cannot force the city to make a decision, especially when Southern California Water already has the power to condemn property.

Water company lawyers say the council has no latitude over granting the franchise, because the Legislature has given the power to regulate utilities to the Public Utilities Commission.

"Control of the streets cannot be employed to restrict or regulate the provision of services by the utility to the public," water company attorney James Colbert III wrote to the Huntington Beach city attorney's office in August.

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