By John Earl
OC Voice Editor
What some people call a mere Huntington Beach bean field is actually one of California’s last remaining wetland areas, according to environmentalists and scientists for the California Coastal Commission. In either case, all the beans and much of the wetlands habitat will vanish soon due to a 5-2 city council vote on June 16 that advanced a 6-year-old proposal to build up to 170 homes on the site.
The housing tract will be located on part of a 50-acre section of land on the upper mesa of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, on an historical flood plain adjacent to a county flood control levee, south of Warner Avenue and along the west side of Graham Avenue.
Since 1971 city officials have dreamed of building homes on the site. The project is related to a larger, 30-year-old battle for 1,700-acres of threatened Bolsa Chica wetlands and habitat connected areas, 1,100 of which have been preserved but would have been replaced by now with a 5,700 home marina and other urban sprawl were it not for the efforts of local and state wetlands preservationists.
Councilmember Cathy Green, for one, has been content for years believing that the project would replace only beans, not wetlands, and that the city should keep with its past intentions. “I have always thought of it [the site] as a bean field and always thought that it was going to be developed residential,” she recalled before voting.
Green said that the city should be thankful for the developer’s promise (actually a mandatory condition for the project’s approval) to spend $15 million of its own money to bring the levee up to FEMA flood control standards. “I have watched the Mississippi overflow its banks and have just thought, ‘Oh, please, don’t let anything like that ever happen to our city,” she said, dramatically.
To environmentalists, the disputed land is a national treasure to be restored to its original state and preserved for future generations. To Shea Homes, the developer that “owns” the land, the property is a real estate gold mine that it has been trying to cash in on for 13 years.
Shea Homes acquired the property in 1996 and continued using it as for farming pending approval of its project, which it calls Parkside. In 2002 the city council approved the original and larger version of Parkside, consisting of homes on 37.4-acres and only 12-acres of open space.
In Nov. 2008, the Coastal Commission staff recommended downsizing the project by about half in order to protect wetlands and related habitat and wildlife in order to comply with the California Coastal Act. If approved, that recommendation would have expanded open space from 20.4-acres to 33.1-acres.
But that was before Shea’s P.R. man, Laer Pearce, launched a media attack on the company’s critics, mainly members of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust (BCLT), “a small group of radicals,” he says, who claimed that wetland areas on the property had been illegally filled in by Shea under the guise of farming in order to circumvent the Coastal Act, which requires preservation of wetlands.
Shea took out full-page newspaper advertisements attacking the 5,000 member BCLT for putting the safety of thousands of homeowners in the area at risk of suffering severe flood damage by delaying the project and preventing badly needed levee repairs from being made.
Shea also attacked the Commission’s scientists, who confirmed that wetlands on the property had been altered and filled by farming before and after Shea bought the property, accusing them of conducting poor scientific research and bending rules. Shea also filed a lawsuit.
But Commissioner Sara Wan shot back. Commission staff “are not being paid by an applicant or an opponent,” she pointed out at the November Commission meeting. On the contrary, Shea’s studies are “based on misstatements of fact and are not scientifically valid…Most of them did not do independent research…” and others “…were either concurrence letters, not studies, or did not address previous wetlands conditions.”
But Shea’s tantrum seemed to work. Last November, the Coastal Commission ignored its staff on some issues and voted for a compromise that downsized the project by one-third instead of one-half, which Shea viewed as vindication for its past alleged misdeeds. That became the plan that the city council approved in June, which will allow residential development on 26.5-acres with only 23-acres of open space.