It took only 10 years and several rejections and lawsuits, but on Thursday, the California Coastal Commission approved the Shea Homes housing project near the Bolsa Chica wetlands, to the dismay of local environmentalists.
The commission voted 6 to 2 in favor of the 50-acre, 111-home project at 17301 Graham St., north of the Wintersburg Channel.
The project was first approved by the Huntington Beach City Council in 2002. It has since been delayed, modified, challenged in court and turned down by the commission as environmentalists and proponenets of open space, led by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, fought to protect the wetlands.
The land trust is scheduled to meet Thursday to determine how it will respond to the commission's approval, which took place in Oceanside.
"I was hopeful that the project would be denied, but they didn't go our way," said Councilwoman Connie Boardman, who serves on the board of the land trust. She added that although the commission didn't vote the project down, the efforts of the land trust over the last 10 years have reduced the project's size and ensured more wetlands are protected.
Commissioner Jana Zimmer, who moved for approval, wasn't all too happy about it, but said at this time, the project is subject to Huntington Beach's coastal guidelines, which she said Shea meets.
Zimmer was empathetic with the land trust but also said, "It's important to me that this commission acts with integrity toward the law."
Commissioner Dayna Bochco too hoped she didn't have to vote for it, but said the Coastal Commission is now bound by the previous decision of another commission, which sent the project through years ago.
Opponents said the development will have grave impacts on wildlife and chip away at one of the last wetlands in Southern California.
"Piece by piece, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands is being eaten up by development," said land trust board member Julie Bixby during the meeting. "You don't know what you've got until it's gone."
This project was rejected last year by the same commission, but a lawsuit by Shea, coupled with new evaluation guidelines, changed the dynamics.
The rejection last year was based on guidelines in the California Coastal Act, which sets the rules on development in the coastal zone.
Shea then filed a lawsuit but ended up settling with the state out of court on condition that the commission reconsidered the project once more — this time under the city's coastal guidelines.
The project went before the commission in June, but a vote on it was postponed pending clarification on some unpermitted grading and filling of the wetlands, which Shea has consistently denied.
Shea went back to court in July, claiming the state was not honoring the settlement agreement, leading a judge to order the commission to hear and vote on the project.
The commission then held a meeting in September where the issue of unpermitted development was addressed. And although Shea still wouldn't admit to any illegal activities, it agreed to stop illegal grading and filling, provide additional wetlands to make up for the loss and pay a fine of $292,500 to a local coastal wetland restoration program, according to the commission's September staff report.
A hearing was subsequently scheduled Thursday, and the project was approved.