Lawsuits Filed Against New Plan for Wetlands

By: 
Sean Belk

Although the Long Beach City Council has approved a “reduced intensity alternative” for a new land-use specific plan governing coastal development and wetlands preservation in the southeast area of the city, appellants of two separate lawsuits claim the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the wetlands.

After more than three years of community meetings and public outreach, the City Council on Sept. 19 unanimously approved the Southeast Area Specific Plan (SEASP), which replaces a more than 40-year-old zoning ordinance, known as the Southeast Area Improvement Plan (SEADIP), that city officials  deemed to be outdated for today’s development and community desires.

Considering development over the next 40 years, the new land-use plan spans an area of nearly 1,500 acres along Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from the Seal Beach border to the Golden Sails Hotel and attempts to balance the need for development growth and preservation of the Los Cerritos Wetlands.

Efforts to create a new vision for land-use and future development were formerly launched about three years ago after several previous attempts to redevelop the SeaPort Marina Hotel site at 2nd Street and PCH were denied  due to concerns of impacts to traffic and the nearby wetlands.

Although a new retail project approved by the City Council earlier this year is  moving forward at 2nd and PCH under existing zoning as appeals have been withdrawn and demolition of the hotel has begun, the city is continuing its effort to establish a new planning ordinance for the surrounding SEASP area.

The new plan aims to attract developers by allowing mixed-use, including commercial, residential and hotel uses, with “placemaking” features that promote public gathering spaces.

As opposed to the previous ordinance that caps building heights at 35 feet, the SEASP, which is about 30 percent less dense than what was originally proposed, allows new commercial and residential buildings of up to five stories high.

Seven-story building heights would be allowed only on two specific land parcels and require the building take up no more than 15 percent of a site. Seven-story heights would also only be allowed on proposals that include a hotel use and that provide an “additional extraordinary public benefit,” such as a public park, recreational facility or performance venue.

Looking out through 2060, the SEASP also allows for 2,584 more residential dwelling units (6,663 units as opposed to 4,078 units) and about 300,000 more square feet of commercial space than is currently allowed in the area. The new plan also allows existing hotel units to be redeveloped.

Additionally, the plan establishes a “coastal habitat wetlands and recreation” land-use category, allowing for wetlands restoration efforts,  interpretive centers or visitor-serving uses. The plan also establishes a wetlands mitigation fund in which fees on new development would help pay for wetlands restoration.

However, two separate community organizations have filed lawsuits against the city in opposition to the city council’s denial of appeals and approval of the SEASP. The two appellants are the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust and Long Beach Citizens for Fair Development.

Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, said in an email that the SEASP does not “sufficiently” focus on protecting the wetlands and there needs to be “less density and less height” for development allowed under the new plan.

“The city’s approval was all about adding a lot of density and dramatic height in a ecologically sensitive area, which might be good for developers but not for wetlands,” she said.

Lambe said the land trust, which has submitted a less dense proposal, also asserts that “wetlands buffers” identified in the plan need to be “more protected by restricting damaging activity within them” and need to be “wider” than proposed, with width “based on science not just what configures most easily.”

While the new plan prohibits an extension of Shopkeeper Road through the wetlands, SEASP “needs to address light impacts and noise impacts from a road so close to sensitive habitat,” she added.

Warren Blesofsky, president of the Long Beach Citizens for Fair Development, stated during the City Council meeting that the city should have chosen to update the existing SEADIP to protect the wetlands better rather than replace it with a whole new plan.

He said the new plan “does not give the fullest protection” to the wetlands and allows for the possibility of even more impacts to the sensitive habitat than the existing ordinance with the possibility of 80-foot high buildings.

Among other concerns, Blesofsky stated that the new plan also doesn’t take into account potential “cumulative” impacts of nearby development projects, such as AES Southland’s battery energy storage facility and generating station, and a new oil-drilling consolidation project.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais told the Beachcomber that the city is currently in the process of reviewing the lawsuits filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court and will “respond accordingly.” While no formal date for a hearing has been set yet, it may take up to eight months before the case is heard  by a judge in court, he said.

Mais said the SEASP, which is required to go before the California Coastal Commission for final approval regardless, may still go forward through the approval process on a “parallel path” with the lawsuits expected to eventually be consolidated into one case. He said the city plans to soon submit the SEASP for California Coastal Commission approval, which is expected to take up to a year for the state to review.

sean@beachcomber.news

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