Delineation contract approved, controversial group will not participate

Disappointing supporters of a controversial environmental group, but to the relief of Malibu Bay Company officials, the City Council declined Monday to hire the environmental group, the Wetlands Action Network, to supervise the Civic Center wetlands delineation study. The council instead voted unanimously to contract directly with Dr. Terry Huffman, the botanist originally proposed by the Wetlands Action Network, to perform the study.

The council hired a different consultant, Environmental Services Associates, to study the geology and wastewater issues in the Civic Center, as part of an environmental constraints analysis of the area.

The Wetlands Action Network originally hired Huffman to perform the delineation study and to pay him with a grant from the city. But because of the group’s well-publicized and litigious battles with developers elsewhere, Bay Company officials — who recently submitted development proposals for two sites in the Civic Center — asked the council to also consider Environmental Services Associates to perform the delineation study.

Supporters of Wetlands Action Network came to Monday’s meeting to request that the group remain involved in the study, and Bay Company officials came to request that they not participate.

But with very little debate, the council adopted the recommendation of the Land Use Subcommittee to hire only Huffman for the delineation study and Environmental Services Associates for the constraints analysis. The city will pay Huffman $18,700 and Environmental Services Associates $43,700.

Most of the council members cited the need for an objective, scientific study as their reason for supporting only Huffman for the study.

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Councilman Harry Barovsky said he supported environmental activists, and he indicated he was one himself at one time, but, he said, they should not participate in the project.

“I’m in favor of a delineation study without any input from activists, developers or city council members,” he said. “I feel comfortable that Huffman will do a superb job.”

Mayor Pro Tem Walt Keller said he regretted not hiring Wetlands Action Network and its executive director, Marcia Hanscom. “But it’s safest from a legal perspective to not have her on board at this time,” he said.

Councilwoman Carolyn Van Horn cited the political climate as the reason why Wetlands Action Network could not participate in the delineation study. “That’s the state of affairs today,” she said. “If you stand up for something, someone is going to try to get you out of the way.”

But environmentalists and developers were not the only object of political games in this wetlands debate.

Mayor Joan House read a portion of a message posted by Hanscom on the Wetlands Action Network’s Web site, which implied that House could manipulate the council meeting’s schedule of agenda items to prevent members of the public from speaking on an issue.

Pointing out that the entire council decides whether to move the order of agenda items, House said, “I’m not sure what purpose this divisiveness serves.”

Dr. Huffman was warmly received by the council members and Bay Company officials, and representatives from the company took turns shaking his hand.

Huffman acknowledged that debates over wetlands are emotional. “But from my perspective, it’s a technical issue,” he said.

Huffman, who has been delineating wetlands since the 1970s and who wrote the definition of wetlands used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he will be determining only whether wetlands, as defined by the federal and state government, exist in the Civic Center. “I’m not establishing whether it’s appropriate to develop there or not,” he said.

Huffman said he plans to start the study in two to three weeks.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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