Editor’s note: The following article is hotly disputed by Shea Homes. Spokesperson Laer Pearce explains Shea’s position in the response the follows directly at the end of this article. The Voice encourages readers to consider the views of all parties involved in this issue.
By John Earl
OC Voice Editor
One of the primary reasons the Huntington Beach City Council accepted the California Coastal Commission’s recommended modifications to the Parkside housing project on the upper mesa of the Bolsa Chica wetlands (June 16) was the developer’s promise to repair the Wintersburg flood control levee up to FEMA standards along the property’s southern border, which Shea vice president Ron Metzler and city staff repeatedly assured the city council would lead to a FEMA certification and the elimination of flood insurance for 7,000 homes located all the way to the 405 freeway and north of Edinger Avenue.
They pointed to a 2002 FEMA letter as proof that the flood map for that area would be changed after Shea’s mandated improvements are made. The letter confirmed that the improvements would lead to lower or zero flood insurance premiums for an unknown number of people.
But Bolsa Chica Land Trust director Flossie Horgan tried to tell the council about a recent request to the city by Shea Homes to “consider a design alternative that would limit the improvement of the levee along the C05 Wintersburg Channel to the developed frontage in lieu of the entire length of the property as originally required under the conditions of approval for the project,” according to a Jan. 23, 2007 letter from City Engineer Travis K. Hopkins to the Coastal Commission.
That letter, which the Voice has a copy of, was also sent to city planners Scott Hess and Mary Beth Broeren, as well as to Metzler, all of whom were present at the June 16 city council meeting but kept quiet when Horgan brought up the issue.
Horgan also told the council that in a written response to Shea’s request FEMA said that the developer would have to start all over again to get flood certification. “There is no guarantee about this flood control insurance,” she asserted.
Metzler then strongly denied Horgan’s accusations, and claimed, “We have made no solicitation to make a change to anything. I have no idea where that source came from. We have nothing to request…We have every intent to make all these improvements to get a certificate from FEMA…I know it did not come from us…”
But the second FEMA letter, also copied to the Voice, and addressed to Neil M. Jordan, a senior engineer who consulted for Shea, also confirms that Shea sought to reduce its flood control mitigation plan and that Shea would have to submit new reports to FEMA before it would approve a change in the FIRM.
“The alternatives you mentioned in your e-mail of November 21, 2006, need to be reviewed,” the letter states. “To document that the project will provide base (1-percent-annual-chance) flood protection, you must submit to FEMA a geotechnical site characterization report that outlines the local geology, soil stratigraphy, ground water, soil parameters…, seismic considerations, tidal fluctuations, and any other information needed for project evaluation in design. In addition, a project plan and associated detailed cross sections must be submitted before FEMA can determine which alternative(s) would provide base flood control.”
The FEMA letter points out that its Conditional Letter of Map Revision of June 6, 2002, the same letter cited by Shea and city staff as proof that 7,000 homes would no longer require expensive flood insurance, was based on the levee improvement project as proposed by Shea at that time. The 2007 letter was also copied to Metzler, as well as to then Mayor Gil Coerper, who also kept quiet about Shea’s application at the city council meeting.
Horgan told the Voice that city staff and councilmembers were given copies of the letters prior to the June 16 city council meeting; yet, none of the five who voted for the Parkside modifications bothered to examine the issue and acted on the assumption, apparently false, that flood insurance relief is a given benefit of the project. Horgan said she still hasn’t heard a word from staff or council on the issue.
For Mayor Debbie Cook, who along with councilmember Jill Hardy voted against the Commission’s Parkside modifications, flood control relief is problematic due to global warming.
“Unfortunately, with the rate of the Greenland ice sheet melting, I think the flood control plain is changing very dramatically…and I just can’t imagine why a local government would want to approve building homes in such a low lying area along the coast.”
Parkside must still go through several more public hearings before the city and the Coastal Commission in a process that could take a year to complete.
The Voice contacted city staff and Shea homes for this story but had not received a response at press time.
Response from Shea Homes spokesperson Laer Pearce:
This letter expands on the email I sent you at 12:59 p.m. on Wednesday, July 2 in response to your inquiry regarding Shea’s flood protection program. Here is that response:
John, this is very simple.
Coastal Commission staff found there is no reason to extend the certified levee repairs beyond the VFPF, because the certified VFPF will protect neighborhoods from any levee break downstream. (The VFPF is really just a northward extension of the existing levee, tying it to high ground, consistent with FEMA requirements.) Because of concerns about construction impacts to adjacent wetlands in the “CP” area, Coastal Staff required that we alter our plan so that instead of running the entire length of our property, the certified levee improvements along the channel would end at the VFPF. We agree with the concept, and the City and County Flood have both been aware of this change for some time.
This change has no impact whatsoever on the flood map. FEMA of course will review it along with everything else it reviews when we submit our Letter of Map Revision application to them upon completion of engineering and construction. There is no requirement or need to submit anything to FEMA at this time.
In this letter, I am expanding on my July 2 response to you.
On November 3, 2006, members of the City staff, the Shea team and Coastal Commission staff met in San Francisco to discuss various aspects of our plan. Among the items that came out of the meeting were Coastal inquiries regarding:
1. Whether the levee construction could not extend beyond the VFPF (the new levee tying the existing levee to high ground that protects against tidal flooding), since the VFPF would be a certified levee and would complete the needed levee protections, eliminating the need for a certified levee downstream of the VFPF. The Commission staff asked for verification that this alternative was acceptable to the City.
2. How the levee could be constructed alongside the WP area of the site in a manner that would be certifiable, since there could be water in the WP, i.e., the “dry” side of the levee. The Commission staff asked for “evidence of contact with FEMA with regard to this possible issue and their perspective on it.”
As you can see, both of these issues have to do with resource protection: Coastal staff was concerned about the impact of levee construction on the wetland areas in the CP, and wanted to be assured that the WP could be constructed and maintained without creating a potentially weak spot in the levee. Commission staff could not complete its staff report until it knew the answers to these concerns.
The letter you ran from the City to the Commission staff (January 23, 2007) states that the City accepts the VFPF as an alternative to an extended levee as long as certain conditions are met. Nothing in these conditions would jeopardize the flood map, as the conditions basically state that the VFPF be certifiable, which has always been a condition for the VFPF.
The matter of the VFPF was closed with the Commission’s ruling in November 2007 approving the VFPF as the project’s western levee, and the City’s certification of the Commission’s changes to the Local Coastal Program in June 2008.
The letter you ran from FEMA to Neil M. Jordan (January 25, 2007) is the requested “evidence of contact” with FEMA. As expected, FEMA said it would rely on our “as built” plans (i.e., the plans submitted after completion of infrastructure, when we will be requesting that the Conditional Letter of Map Revision be re-issued as a Letter of Map Revision, triggering the new flood map), and would review our plans at that time as part of its approval of the certification of the new levees. When we submitted the FEMA letter to Commission staff, our cover letter stated:
As we wrote in our January 23 letter to you, we are confident that we can meet FEMA requirements in Section 65.10 and other provisions in the National Flood Insurance Program for any of the levee alternatives.
When the Commission ruled at its November 2007 hearing that the WP is not a wetland, this entire matter became moot. The design of the levee alongside the WP area will be no different from the levee design elsewhere along the Wintersburg Channel fronting the Shea property, and will conform with FEMA’s requirements per the Conditional Letter of Map Revision in 2002.
Shea Homes has always been committed to completing and certifying our flood protection improvements and obtaining a Letter of Map Revision. We hope this response clarifies the matter for you.