Wetlands delineation bogs down in debate


The City Council will likely vote Monday whether to hire a controversial environmental group to supervise the wetlands delineation study planned for the Civic Center. If the council passes on the group, the Wetlands Action Network (WAN), then Planning Director Craig Ewing will oversee the delineation study.

Dr. Terry Huffman, the single candidate a council subcommittee recommended to perform the delineation study, is a shoo-in for that job. Huffman, a wetlands scientist, came to the attention of the city through WAN, which originally hired Huffman to perform a delineation study paid for by a grant from the city. But WAN’s participation in the project alarmed Malibu Bay Company officials — who recently submitted development proposals for two sites in the Civic Center — and they pressed the council to consider a bid from another consultant, Environmental Services Associates.

Land Use Subcommittee member Mayor Pro Tem Walt Keller said ESA will be recommended only for the environmental constraints analysis in the Civic Center, not the wetlands delineation.

Bay Company officials apparently regard Huffman as well qualified for the delineation study, but they question why WAN should serve as Huffman’s supervisor, as originally proposed. WAN, they say, would not serve in an unbiased and neutral capacity.

WAN is best known for opposing both the Playa Vista project near Marina Del Rey, and a legal settlement between developers and another environmental group, which requires the developers to restore most of the wetlands on the Playa Vista property. WAN has filed a number of lawsuits to stop the project, and, in one case, recently obtained an injunction halting some of the work there.

WAN’s executive director, Marcia Hanscom, said she is disturbed that Bay Company officials participated in the process of selecting a consultant for the Civic Center delineation study, because only sound science is at issue. “This is not a political issue,” she said.

Whether WAN or Planning Director Craig Ewing supervises Huffman’s work, Hanscom said Huffman will perform the delineation study using the definitions of wetlands provided by state and federal regulations. He will study the water level and the plant and animal life in the area, and he will take core samples, she said.

UCLA Professor Richard Ambrose, who recently completed a study of Malibu Lagoon and the Civic Center, said the tract of land west of Stuart Ranch Road is a freshwater marsh. Ambrose, of the environmental and engineering department, said the Chili Cook-Off site, slated for development by the Bay Company, ceased functioning as a wetlands more than 100 years ago. Topographic maps from the late 1800s show roads crisscrossing the Chili Cook-Off site, he said.

“It looks like it was filled in around the turn of the century,” he said.

But Hanscom said that the site may still be functioning as a wetlands, according to state and federal regulations, and Huffman’s study will answer that question. She said the site contains wetlands soil, which absorbs rainwater like a sponge.

If the Chili Cook-Off site is found to still be functioning as a wetlands, development may still occur on the property, but under the strict regulatory controls of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Hanscom believes, however, that the community does not want the project, and she said leaving it undeveloped offers an opportunity to recover and restore the wetlands that either were or are currently there.

“Looking at it historically, and what makes sense from a geographical perspective, is to restore the wetlands in the entire area,” said Hanscom.

In addition, because the Chili Cook-Off site is in the Malibu Creek flood plain, more development in the area would only increase flooding during heavy rains, according to Hanscom.

“What is best for the Malibu Lagoon, and the other property owners in the Civic Center, [is to preserve] as much of that open area as we can,” she said.

If the area is restored as wetlands, no man-made development would be allowed there, including ball fields, she said. “If it’s wetlands, you can’t put in ball fields,” she said.

While soccer moms and Little League players would probably disagree, Hanscom said the city has plenty of other areas for ball fields.

Ambrose said restoring the wetlands on the Chili Cook-Off site could not be done very easily. He said a drainage ditch that runs along the property and behind the Malibu Country Mart is the site’s only current connection to Malibu Lagoon.

But he said that talking about restoring or creating wetlands there does not make sense at this stage. “You can’t do it without a willing seller,” he said. “And money to buy the property.”

Next month, the city will conduct a poll to determine the level of support in the community for a bond issue to purchase property for wetlands restoration and parks and recreation purposes.