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Construction firm probed in leveling of Long Beach salt marsh

The city has issued a stop-work order against 2H Construction after crews allegedly graded 10 acres near the Los Cerritos Wetlands. The firm was operating without proper permits, an official said.

March 24, 2009|Louis Sahagun

A Signal Hill construction company has come under investigation for leveling 10 acres of salt marsh, dumping asphalt and unearthing a former city dump near the Los Cerritos Wetlands at the mouth of the San Gabriel River.

Long Beach officials Friday issued a stop-work order against 2H Construction, after residents complained that the company was tearing up wetlands. Long Beach City Manager Pat West said 2H was operating without appropriate permits while it was preparing the land for construction of a soccer field.

On Monday morning, an egret stood in the center of the barren parcel amid bulldozer tracks and mounds of toppled palm trees and refuse on the eastern edge of the Los Cerritos Wetlands. An osprey was perched on a lone post where vegetation once grew.

"What was green with trees and nesting birds is now muck devoid of vegetation," said Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the nonprofit Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust. "We're angry that our laws could be violated like this with impunity."

Sean Hitchcock, president of 2H Construction, bought the land less than a month ago, city officials said. On Monday, he was on vacation and not available for comment, according to a company spokesman who declined to comment."Right now, there are more questions than answers," said Long Beach City Councilman Gary De Long, whose district includes the property. "What happened here? How did it happen? Exactly what rights does the developer have?"

The conflict is the latest chapter in a decade-long effort to restore the Los Cerritos Wetlands, an active oil field flanked by supermarkets, a movie theater, motels and power plants that also is a sanctuary for wildlife.

Tiger beetles and horned snails burrow in its salt flats and brackish ponds. The endangered Belding's sparrow flits through carpets of pickle weed. Waterways teem with fish, and their edges are criss-crossed with the tracks of coyotes and raccoons.

A century ago, the wetlands stretched over 2,400 acres. Today, state officials call the remaining 400 acres a "degraded wetlands."

The area gained attention two years ago when a federal judge tossed out local developer Tom Dean's environmental impact report on a proposal to build a 16.5-acre Home Depot Design Center retail complex on the east side of the wetlands.

Dean recently sold several nearby acres to Hitchcock, according to city officials.

Thomas Marchese, vice president of the University Park Estates Neighborhood Assn., vowed to fight to protect the site from development. "We already have lots of soccer fields in Long Beach," he said, "but not a lot of wetlands."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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