The California Coastal Conservancy board voted unanimously Thursday to approve spending $6.5 million to move forward with the technical studies, environmental reviews and permits needed to begin restoration of the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands despite strong opposition by the Sierra Club and other wetlands preservation groups.
The board meeting was held Thursday atop the Baldwin Hills - Scenic Overlook in Culver City in a small auditorium that had a standing-room-only crowd of about 40 people.
The Coastal Conservancy authorized disbursing up to $6.25 million for engineering, hydrologic analyses, geotechnical assessments and public access design for the Ballona (pronounced BYE'-oh-nuh) Wetlands. It also authorized up to $240,000 to the nonprofit Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation for data collection, technical review and coordination for the environmental impact analysis and permits for the restoration project that includes parts of the city of Los Angeles and unincorporated Los Angeles County.
The move is the latest in a 30-year saga over one of the last remaining wetlands in the greater Los Angeles area. The tale of the wetlands includes the work of local preservationists who for decades fought to successfully save the last 600 acres while massive developments such as Playa Vista overtook the landscape. With its unique habitat that includes tidal movements, exotic birds, rare reptiles, as well as fish, flora and fauna, the restoration of the wetlands has become an emotional issue with those who battled for its preservation often finding themselves at loggerheads with government-sanctioned restoration groups over how best to restore the wetlands.
Shelley Luce, executive director of the state's Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, said she was happy with the vote that will provide up to $240,000 for the commission's non-profit partner foundation to start the restoration process.
"What it means is that we can move forward with the kind of detailed design work and engineering studies that we need in order to determine the best possible project for the Ballona Wetlands," Luce said. "I'm also very pleased that the board voiced support for a full ecological restoration. They recognized that this is a regional asset and even a statewide asset."
Luce said the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands are within 10 miles of 5.6 million people and most of them have never seen a wetland or knows what one should look like.
"When this restoration is done and they are standing on a rise with beautiful upland and butterflies and bees buzzing around and looking out over a restored wetland with a meandering channel and birds and fish, they'll know what a wetlands should look like," Luce said.
The Sierra Club's Ballona Wetlands Restoration Committee opposed the funding in a strongly worded four-page letter that said funding for the project "is not protective of the wildlife and ecological needs of that wildlife" and claimed the project was based on flawed science and did not enjoy public support.
The letter noted that several endangered and rare species, including birds such as the Least Bell's Vireo, the California Gnatcatcher and Orcutt's Yellow Pincushion, are dependent and thriving on current conditions in the wetlands. The Sierra Club urged the conservancy to buy more adjacent land, secure the wetlands with fencing and improve its trails.
"Do not support approval of this heavily mechanized engineered, bulldozer-driven approach to the Ballona Wetlands," the letter said.
The Sierra Club's letter was endorsed by the Ballona Institute and the Wetlands Defense Fund.
Lisa Fimiani, executive director of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, testifified before the board supporting their decision.
"We strongly believe these baseline studies are critical to ensure they do the right restoration," Fimiani said.
She acknowledged that her group had concerns with the state's plans and said the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands favors maintaining eight acres of dunes habitat in the wetlands that might be lost in more extreme plans submitted by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. She said nesting habitats for the Belding's Savannah Sparrow could be threatened as well if too much water is brought in from Ballona Creek, referring to the entire restoration as a delicate balancing act.
Before the board voted, Coastal Conservancy board member Ann Notthoff said she became aware of the Ballona Wetlands around 1980 and reflected on the environmental disagreement back then among groups that "all had legitimate love for this very special place."
"It broke my heart then and it breaks my heart now that there continues to be this disagreement," Notthoff said.
She urged for an end to the disagreements and asked for a more transparent process that included public participation.
Coastal Conservancy chairman Douglas Bosco, a former state legislator, called the Ballona Wetlands a "postage stamp" property surrounded by overwhelming development and said he remembered how the wetlands owners in the late 1970s were lobbying for changes in state law to make way for development.
He said that he understood how people might fear the "big project mentality" and the looming threat of engineers and consultants who could make decisions while ignoring their concerns. He asked for assurances that the project would include public input going forward and requested regular updates.
The wetlands currently are mostly off-limits to the public and recently have been plagued by vandalism and homeless encampments. The Coastal Conservancy has been working in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game, the State Lands Commission, and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission to plan the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands.
Luce estimated that full restoration of the wetlands would take about 10 years with public access available sooner in its earlier stages.
(Editor's Note: Updated Sat., Jan. 21, 2012, to CLARIFY the remarks of Lisa Fimiani, executive director of Friends of Ballona Wetlands.)