Commission approves eco-friendly development

The Associated Press
Friday November 17, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Environmentalists cheered a California Coastal Commission decision Thursday to approve a truncated version of a proposed development that has been at the center of a wetlands preservation battle for three decades. 

The plan, approved 12-0, calls for 1,235 homes to be built on 65 acres of a mesa next to the Bolsa Chica wetlands near Huntington Beach. The amount is less than half the residential acreage sought by developers who claim such dense housing in the exclusive area isn’t feasible. 

The proposed Hearthside Homes Development once included a marina and 5,700 homes in and around the wetlands. 

The wetlands themselves were excluded from the proposal after state and federal agencies bought them from Hearthside for $25 million in 1997. 

But the debate over the project continues to rage on, and at Thursday’s hearing more than 300 people, most of them wetlands neighbors, jammed a hotel meeting room to overflowing. The group was sharply divided. 

“None of Bolsa Chica should be developed,” said Patricia Campbell, mayor of neighboring Seal Beach. “We are in a battle for the environment, once it is built over or paved over, it is forever lost.” 

Supporters of Hearthside said the company went to great lengths to make the development environmentally friendly, including setting aside park land, enhancing habitat and planning trails. 

Some also observed that most of the wetlands, the subject of a massive restoration proposal, is currently home to an oil field. 

Pointing to a picture of oil rigs, Brad White said, “That looks far more dangerous to me than houses that haven’t even been built yet.” 

The commission had approved Bolsa Chica developments three times before, but was forced by a state appeals court last year to take up the matter again. Hearthside supporters said the commission should have kept the elements of the most recent plan that the court did not specifically reject. 

But the commission’s executive director, Peter Douglas, said previous scenarios no longer applied after the $25 million land purchase took the wetlands issue off the table. 

Holding true to old plans would have meant Hearthside could have built not just on the uppermost part of Warner Mesa, but also on 72 acres of the mesa’s lower shelf near a grove of court-protected eucalyptus trees. 

The trees aren’t native, but were protected because birds of prey, such as hawks and white-tailed kites, use them. 

Lucy Dunn, executive vice president for Hearthside, said the density the commission proposes is not feasible. But commission staff said it is similar to the density the company proposed in a mid-1990s plan that included 2,400 homes. 

Orange County officials have joined Hearthside in opposing the commission’s changes, and the county could still send the plan back to the commission with revisions.