Minutes after California Coastal Commission staff recommended denying a request to rezone part of the Bolsa Chica mesa for residential use, the property's owner withdrew its application.
Commissioners had just taken up the highly debated rezoning issue when a city planner said further discussions wouldn't be needed.
Huntington Beach Planning Director Scott Hess told commissioners during their meeting Thursday in the city's council chambers that Signal Landmark decided to withdraw its application, which sought to amend the city's local coastal permit to rezone the Ridge site to allow for the construction of homes.
After the statement, Ed Mountford, senior vice president of Signal, said only, "There's still work that needs to be done."
Since the 1980s, the Ridge, a 5-acre parcel on the eastern part of the mesa, has been zoned for open space use.
If Signal still wants the area rezoned, it would need to reapply with the city of Huntington Beach to change the site to residential use, Hess said in an interview after the meeting.
He added that it could take about a year or two for a new application to be brought to the City Council for approval. If granted, it would then be sent back to the Coastal Commission.
Had commissioners approved the rezoning, they would have paved the way for Signal to build about 22 homes on the Ridge.
Despite the withdrawal of the application, environmentalists, preservationists and the Native American community remain concerned that Signal is still likely to reapply for the change.
For decades, preservationists and local Native Americans have been fighting to protect the Bolsa Chica mesa and wetlands from development, arguing that it is among the last natural wetland areas in the state and had been home to various Native American tribes that settled there about 9,000 years ago.
Various nonprofits prevented Signal from converting the wetlands into a marina in the 1980s, and the organizations and tribe members have not let up in their battle to save the remaining 11 acres of Bolsa Chica: the 5 acres of the Ridge and the 6 adjacent acres owned by the Goodell family.
Both properties are thought to harbor Native American artifacts and cog stones. Previous archaeological digs in the mesa and wetlands have uncovered significant finds. Some artifacts were found on the Ridge property, but Signal officials argued that the discovery was in a small area in the corner of the site.
Anthony Morales, tribal chief and chairman of the Gabrielino Band of Mission Indians in San Gabriel, one of the Native American tribes that settled in the Bolsa Chica mesa and wetlands generations ago, viewed the withdrawal as a waste of everyone's time and said a definitive decision should have been made Thursday.
"We've traveled to San Diego and traveled here, and they pulled the same stunt all over again," he said.
Talks about the mesa were postponed during the January Coastal Commission meeting, held in San Diego, after Huntington Beach officials requested more time to analyze and reply to a roughly 100-page addendum to the item.
"They're not doing the right thing," said Morales, 66. "I can only guess at what they have up their sleeves. It's all tactics."
In January, Coastal Commission staff suggested in a report that commissioners deny the local coastal permit amendment on the basis that the zoning change would "eliminate a higher-priority land-use designation" and that it wouldn't "assure that significant culture resources and sensitive habitats will be protecte."
But they added that they would recommend approval if Signal and the city made a few modifications, including buying the Goodell property and giving it to a government organization or nonprofit to be preserved as open space.
However, by Thursday's meeting, the commission's staff had changed their minds and were set to recommend denying the application.
Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb told commissioners that staff believed it was not "correct to recommend approval with the suggested modifications."
"We received the letter from the state Office of Historic Preservation indicating that [the Ridge] is a part of a cultural village," Sarb said. "The cultural significance of the Ridge site, we think, is greater than we thought it was."