Bolsa Chica and Politics: The Past Informs the Future
By Shirley Dettloff

When the Amigos de Bolsa Chica’s fight began nearly 50 years ago, we were just a group of ordinary people dedicated to saving one of the last remaining wetlands in California. 90% of the state’s wetlands had been destroyed. So we started our work by learning everything we could about the importance of wetlands, basing all of our fight on scientific evidence. As our numbers in support of the movement grew, and the fact that the Coastal Act had been passed by the voters in 1972, it put us in a position to take action. This meant that we would have to go before many governmental bodies to make our case so that development would not take place. We soon learned that it would be a group of elected officials who would make the decision whether or not the Bolsa Chica would be saved or developed. Whether it was a Board of Supervisors, a State of California committee or the Legislature, or members of Congress a vote up or down would be made by elected officials.

Our first fight would be with the County of Orange and the Board of Supervisors. This body had jurisdiction over the Bolsa Chica as it had not been incorporated into the City of Huntington Beach. Remember most of us had never been in a fight, nor had we gone before elected boards. We first set up appointments with all of the Supervisors, attended all of the hearings, and slowly made some progress in making minor changes and slowing down the approvals. These approvals would mean that the County supported development of a marina, 5,000 homes, and destruction of the wetland.

At this time Orange County was growing and the Board of Supervisors supported all development. This was also a very conservative county and environmentalism was not a popular concept. Signal Landmark, owners of the wetlands, recognized that there was a growing opposition to their plans for a marina and a residential community. They had their lobbyist persuade our State Senator Paul Carpenter to submit a bill, SB493, which would remove the Coastal Commission’s authority to certify Signal’s Bolsa Chica plan and give it to the County. This is when the Amigos went into action, lobbying committee members in Sacramento and because of our intense lobbying efforts, the bill was defeated. Hundreds of letters were sent by community members to the committee. This was the beginning of understanding that we had power and influence and could stand up to the company.

In December of 1981 the County’s Land Use Plan for the Bolsa Chica went before the Board of Supervisors. The Board approved a plan which called for 600 acres of wetlands to be saved, 3,200 residential homes on the mesa and 2,500 units on 335 acres of lowland, a 75-acre marina with 1,800 boat slips and a 700-foot navigable ocean inlet. Although this wasn’t the plan Signal wanted, we, of course, opposed the plan because our position was that all of the wetlands must be preserved. What we should remember is that every step we took in this long journey resulted in changes being made, but it was never enough. Now it was time to move on to the Coastal Commission.

We knew that the California Coastal Commission’s support would be critical if we were to stop development. We met with staff and commissioners. We felt we were making progress with this body, as they, for the most part, understood the importance of saving a wetland, based on scientific evidence and the Coastal Act. It should be noted that all of the members of the Coastal Commission are appointed by State elected officials. The Coastal Act was very clear on wetland preservation, so the Coastal Commission was concerned with the amount of wetlands that Signal was willing to save. Because the County and Commission could not come to any agreements, the County asked that the plan be withdrawn instead of it being defeated. During this entire time, the Amigos continued to meet with the commissioners and State lawmakers.

The standoff between the County and Commission was attracting too much attention in Sacramento, and to resolve this, it was decided that an independent force had to break the logjam. As a result, SB 429 was introduced, giving the Coastal Conservancy and Department of Fish and Wildlife the authority to prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan for Bolsa Chica. This plan revolved around Section 30411 of the Coastal Act which said that if a wetland is so severely degraded and has to be restored, the money for restoration would come through a boating facility. This was the position of Fish and Wildlife and the Conservancy disagreed with this position. In the end, this plan called for 915 acres of wetlands, and a 60 foot wide navigable inlet, public facilities, a motel and seven restaurants, and was submitted to the Coastal Commission in November of 1984. The Coastal Commission certified it even though they cited numerous inadequacies. The major concern was whether the navigable inlet was the least environmentally damaging alternative. They delayed final action, but the Marina Plan, as it became known, was certified in January of 1986. Amigos continued to work with our State legislators, the Coastal Conservancy, and Fish and Wildlife as both the Amigos and an increasing number of citizens opposed the plan.

The struggle continued. By 1987 it was becoming clear to Signal and to some politicians that the Marina Plan would never be approved. This is when Senator Bergeson, Newport Beach, sponsored a bill requested by Signal which would establish a special district for the Bolsa Chica. This bill would allow the district to issue its own bonds, assess landowners, collect taxes and use the funds to pay for the inlet and the marina’s infrastructure. Now the City had a role! In February of 1988 a hearing regarding the bill was held in the Huntington Beach City Council Chamber with 50 speakers opposing the bill! Seeing that the bill had widespread opposition, Senator Bergeson withdrew it.

What would the Coastal Commission approve? Orange County Supervisor Harriett Wieder decided that a new Coalition of State and Federal agencies, City and County representatives, Audubon, Sierra Club, Signal, the Ports of Long Beach and L.A. and the Amigos should come together to try and resolve the issues and come up with a plan. After six months the group came up with a plan called The Coalition Concept Plan. Signal agreed to major concessions. They would eliminate the marina plan, including the navigable inlet, and the extensive lowland residential and commercial development. The Amigos agreed to a strip of low density residential development along the back side of the lowlands adjacent to previously developed land. This was done because of the concessions made by Signal and the fact that this plan would still have to be approved by the Coastal Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers. This was a gamble but Amigos was confident it would pay off in the end. The Commission had made it very clear that the plan was inconsistent with the Coastal Act due primarily to the filling of the 120 acres of degraded wetlands.

Things were far from over. This decision by Amigos would receive much criticism from the community, but stood their ground because they knew that the Commission had to make the right and legal decision. This was a very difficult time for many of us, but we knew that we were the ones who had spent years defeating bad bills, getting changes made to any plan that came forward, spending hundreds of dollars on a lawsuit over many years, and getting the respect of many of our elected officials. Although there were issues with the plan, the fact is that the Marina Plan was eliminated and 90% of the wetlands were saved.

In 1996 Signal, now known as the Koll Company, submitted an amended plan for Bolsa Chica to the Coastal Commission. The proposed plan called for setting aside 1,098 acres of wetlands and buffers, placing 2400 homes on 200 acres of the Bolsa Chica mesa and up to 900 homes on the 185 acres of lowlands. It depended upon the interpretation of Sections 30233 and 30411 of the Coastal Act which allowed development in severely degraded wetlands. This plan would allow Koll to have the money to restore the wetlands because without a boating facility there would be no money for restoration. However, even with these issues, and staff’s recommendations to deny, the majority of the Commission voted to certify the document. A lawsuit filed by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, Huntington Beach Tomorrow and the Shoshone Gabrieleño Nation claimed the Coastal Commission erred in approving development in 185 acres of lowland considered degraded wetland, allowing Warner Pond to be filled, and approving the moving of the eucalyptus habitat (favored by raptors and herons) to the Huntington Mesa. In 1997, the court agreed: no development even in degraded wetlands!

In 1995, the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and seven other regulatory agencies agreed to acquire the Bolsa Chica Wetlands from the Koll Company. This led to the 1997 decision by the State to acquire 880 acres of Bolsa Chica lowlands using Funds from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in exchange for mitigation credit. In that same year, the Bolsa Chica Restoration Steering Committee was formed from eight state and federal agencies to oversee the restoration of the Bolsa Chica lowlands, and several public hearing were held for discussion of restoration plans.

By 2000, Koll was limited to building only on the mesa, but the Commission staff brought forward a very surprising new plan. They proposed that most of the mesa should be protected because it provided foraging habitat for raptors, was immediately adjacent to the wetlands and contained stands of endangered tar plants. On a motion by Commissioner Shirley Dettloff, the commission voted unanimously to support their staff’s recommendations. This left Koll with only 65 acres on the upper bench of the mesa with an additional 34 acres set aside for open space. Koll immediately filed a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission. They also filed a suit against the Amigos, saying that their actions were not supporting the original Coalition Plan. Finding that they did not have a strong position, Koll dropped the suit against the Amigos.

Is the fight over? No, it will never be over. First we fought to save and restore the wetlands, and now we must fight to make sure that the wetlands survive for future generations. Now the fight is a financial one to make sure that there is funding for maintenance of the tidal inlet so the flow of ocean water, which is the life of a wetland, are uninterrupted. There are also innumerable uncertainties brought on by climate change and sea level rise. We will need to be activists once again, writing letters, giving testimony and meeting with elected officials with a new purpose. Once again, that is how the future of these wetlands will be decided. How will this community respond now? Will it find a unified voice as it did in the 1970s and 1980s? We must always be vigilant and never for a moment take our achievements for granted.