Controversial Ballona Wetlands Plan Welcomes Public Comment

One of the last remaining vestiges of a 2,000-acre expanse of coastal habitat, the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands has been a disputed subject with environmentalists, community groups, and public agencies all having divergent ideas of its future.

Just before the end of January, the Annenberg Foundation, a new player in the ongoing conversation on the wetlands, stirred up debate by signing a memorandum of agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to build a $50-million interpretive center in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

Conversations between CDFW and the Annenberg began sometime last year, according to Annenberg spokesperson Liza deVilla Ameen. "It's always been part of our mission to advocate through improved communication respectful stewardship of our environmental resources in this living city," she said. "We felt that the state had a similar goal and vision around the Ballona Wetlands project."

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That initial conversation resulted in refinements to the original planned restoration at the site. The interpretative center would sit on a 46,000 square-feet area on a heavily degraded Area C that also contains a baseball field. The now-contentious site is bisected by Culver Boulevard and bordered by Lincoln Boulevard to the west, Highway 90 in the east, and Ballona Creek to the south.

That may sound like a large site, says Rick Mayfield, Senior Environmental Scientist with CDFW, but it really isn't when you put in context. "The infrastructure of the center would have a footprint of just a little over an acre out of the approximately 600 acres of the entire property."

Mayfield also points out that Area C isn't wetland habitat, but upland habitat. It also has always been a problematic area in terms of management. "There's generally a big influx of homeless encampments that come into there. People have used it as a dumping ground for years -- from construction debris to medical waste to anything you can think of."

Lisa Fimiani, executive director of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, agrees. As a local resident, she has been biking through Area C and witnessed how much degradation has happened, as well as influx of non-native flora. As of this writing, Friends of Ballona Wetlands had yet to formulate their official stance, but Fimiani says they're "excited and enthusiastic" about the future prospects of the site.

The group has long been a part of bringing the public to the wetlands, Fimiani says. This means they also bear the brunt of having to field calls addressing abandoned carts, trash disposal, or anything out of the ordinary. "We've always been the contact here, to have things taken care of. It's great to have somebody else look into that and have things taken care of. It's about time."

The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, however, thinks that any developments should remain strictly outside the whole 600-acre area. "All of the benefits and objectives outlined in the memorandum could be achieved just as fully with the facilities in question constructed outside of the ecological reserve, as long as the Foundation is willing to think creatively and appreciate the unique value of this remarkable ecosystem," it writes on its website.

By letting even an acre go, the Land Trust worries that it would establish a slippery slope where others could also come in and propose uses of the property that would run counter to restoring its biodiversity.

The heated reactions -- both for and against the proposal -- from the public has prompted the CDFW and Annenberg to issue an amendment to the Notice of Preparation (NOP) for the project. They've also opened another comment period through March 1, though it had no obligation to do so, said Mayfield, given that previous scoping work had already included a possibility of an interpretative center. "We felt that we wanted to be completely open and make people aware of things," said Mayfield.

A month isn't enough however, argues Walter Lamb of the Trust. "Thirty days is really insufficient for a project of this magnitude that just got announced. There's really no lead-up. It took everyone by surprise. If they really want public input, they will extend the comment period from 30 days to 90 days."

Whether or not the Land Trust would get its extension, the established environmental review process mandates CDFW and Annenberg to keep people periodically updated on the possible developments.

Once the NOP closes March 1, all comments will be collated and taken into consideration in writing a draft environmental report, which again would be open to public comment. "At that point, people could look at real, suggested alternatives," said Mayfield, including a "no bulldozer" alternative that would explore having nothing done on the site. As it is now, "there are no set plans, no blueprints. There is just the memorandum, which is a conceptual idea of where everybody would like to go. People can get those ideas and thoughts in and become part of the process."

Read more about the restoration. The revised notice which includes the proposed interpretative center can be read here.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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I'm deeply disappointed that Rick Mayfield would suggest that the public is better of waiting until after the public comment period to start paying attention to this proposal. The idea that this newly proposed construction inside the ecological reserve required no additional scoping because the idea of an interpretive center had been discussed is disingenuous and suggests that Fish and Wildlife see the CEQA process as an obstacle to be bypassed rather than an opportunity for real public dialogue.

A few myths need to be debunked here:

- The answer to trash, invasive species and homeless people is not to replace habitat with buildings. Mr. Mayfield's comments are earily reminiscent of the justification for habitat destruction at Sepulveda. The whole point of a restoration is to address those issues. Even in its current state, Area C supports numerous species of wild birds and plants.

- The initial scoping period is when the public can influence the scope of the EIR. Anyone who takes Mr, Mayfield's cue and waits until the draft EIR is completed will have lost that opportunity.

- This project is not the result of any affection that Wallis Annenberg feels toward Ballona. This is the same projected that the Foundation attempted to build on public land in Ranchos Palos Verdes, before the people of that community rejected it.

- Studies by the restoration project team make clear that the ecological reserve's already small size poses a challenge to biodiversity. Portraying this is just a few acres out of 600 perpetuates the bad environmental math of endless subtraction that has put us where we are today.

- I have great respect for what the Friends of Ballona has done with the land in Area B for which they obtained a stewardship role as part of their settlement with the developers. They do not strike me as the most credible spokespersons for the fate of Area C given that they were resigned to letting that land be developed when they agreed to settle. The MOU indicates that the Foundation will support the Friend's education efforts and tours.

When all the flowery PR spin is stripped away and we look at the facts, we have a wealthy heiress who has done much good for the world but who now wants to construct an animal adoption center disguised as an interpretive center in an already fragmented ecological reserve. She sees that as part of her legacy and clearly hasn't given any thought to the legacy that others might want to leave for their kids and future generations.

We at the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust urge the Foundation and the CDFW to rethink their strategy of pushing this proposal past the public. Extend the public comment period to 90 days. If the proposal is a good idea now, it will still be a good idea in 2 1/2 months. Give the people the time and the information they need to form their own opinions.

Walter Lamb
Ballona Wetlands Land Trust