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Opposition builds over plan for Home Depot

Long Beach residents and others, worried that the project could harm nearby wetlands, hope to appeal the city's decision to approve it.

January 04, 2007|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

On the southeastern edge of Long Beach near the Orange County line, Janice Dahl and hundreds of her neighbors long ago learned to coexist with a power plant and a slew of oil pumps.

But a Home Depot is something else.

"Power plants don't generate traffic," said Dahl, a real estate broker and the president of the 450-member University Park Estates Homeowner's Assn. "A Home Depot does -- thousands of cars per day."

This year, the California Coastal Commission is expected to hear appeals by the homeowners group and others -- including two commissioners -- of the Long Beach City Council's recent approval of a retail center anchored by a Home Depot. It would be the first big-box store to be built in the coastal zone of Los Angeles and Orange counties, officials said.

The commission's staff, Dahl's group and other residents are concerned about the effect the project would have on the nearby Los Cerritos Wetlands. Environmentalists have long sought to restore the 400-acre marsh, which is dotted by oil derricks near the mouth of the San Gabriel River, as a haven for fish and migrating birds.

The Trust for Public Land bought 66 acres of the marsh from private owners in June, then gave the land to the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority. The authority, which will have to pay for the restoration, is made up of local conservancies and the cities of Seal Beach and Long Beach.

"How does the city think wetlands ... can be restored across the street from this giant retail store it just approved?" Dahl asked.

Reed Holderman, western regional director of the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land, said there have been cases in which retail development, such as a Costco store in San Francisco near the shore, was properly planned to reduce the effects on nature.

But because several groups hope to buy and restore all 400 acres of the Los Cerritos marsh at a cost of millions of dollars, he said extensive protections would be essential for wildlife and the development to coexist.

"Let's face it: You put a Home Depot there, there's going to be a lot of human activity there," added Holderman, who said he had faith the commission would thoroughly evaluate the project.

"Somebody should ask the question, 'What does this proposed development do, positively or negatively, to this huge public investment into the Los Cerritos Wetlands,' " he said.

The Home Depot project has the support of a majority of the City Council, including Gary DeLong, whose district encompasses the development. The 9,000-home Leisure World community across the San Gabriel River has registered no opposition and the Long Beach Unified School District, which has two schools nearby, has backed off from early concerns about traffic.

Long Beach's environmental impact report estimated the project would add 5,780 vehicles on weekdays and 8,500 on weekend days to already busy roads leading to the proposed Home Depot -- and to the Garden Grove Freeway entrance nearest Cal State Long Beach. Residential and commercial developments planned nearby could make traffic even worse, critics said.

DeLong said that he is concerned about traffic but that city planners assured him any snarls could be relieved with roadway improvements. He supported the development because it would rid the area of some abandoned natural gas tanks and provide the city with much-needed tax revenue.

He said Long Beach needs more officers for its Police Department and is facing more than $100 million in deferred maintenance of its fire stations plus a $150-million shortfall over the next decade to repair streets and sidewalks.

"The car dealers, and the associated tax revenue, left our city some years ago," DeLong said. "Since it does not appear that most of our residents are interested in tax increases, we need to focus on economic development to generate more tax revenues."

For decades, industry and hundreds of residences have coexisted along this coastal stretch of Long Beach, which also includes a golf course and marina.

Marice White, a public relations consultant for Home Depot, and the property owner, Thomas Dean, said Dean made no secret of the fact that he bought the land knowing the retailer wanted to build a store there. The project would be an improvement of the existing site, White said.

Dean purchased the land from AES Corp. after it was forced to meet post-Enron regulations regarding energy holdings, White said.

But AES, along with the homeowner group, is now fighting the Home Depot project in court. It believes placing a high-volume retail center next to a power plant presents a potential national security risk.

The project would be constructed on 16.5 acres north of 2nd Street, between the river and Studebaker Road, beside the AES power plant.

An environmental review found that the development, which would be built on a tank farm 200 feet from the wetlands, would not harm the marsh. But critics argue that runoff from the retail center's 752-space parking lot would carry pollutants into the wetlands.

After months of heated debate, the City Council voted 6 to 3 in October to approve the project with conditions, overriding the city's own Local Coastal Plan. The benefits of the project outweighed existing zoning and open space requirements, the council found.

But residents, the AES power plant and two coastal commissioners appealed the decision. The commission voted in November to take up the matter, nullifying the council's action, said Angela Reynolds, the city's environmental planning officer.

The commission's staff report cites concerns over the effect of the large retail complex on existing traffic, wildlife, wetlands and tidal waters on adjacent land. The property owner must submit details of promised environmental solutions before a hearing date is scheduled.

A California Coastal Commission staff summary of the project is at www.coastal.ca.gov.

nancy.wride@latimes.com

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