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Groups Challenge Restoration Plan for Ballona Wetlands

Overview of Playa del Rey and Ballona Wetlands March 2020
Overview of Playa del Rey and Ballona Wetlands March 2020 | Photo by Karen Foshay

A group dedicated to protecting the Ballona Wetlands is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging millions of dollars in public funds have been misused for what they claim is a "deceptive''  plan to bulldoze the ecological reserve under the guise of being a restoration effort.

Defend Ballona Wetlands, the Animal Protection, Rescue League Inc. and three individuals filed the suit Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court against the California State Coastal Conservancy and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation. The litigation focuses on Proposition 12, a 2000 voter- approved measure which authorized a $2.1 billion bond for various land and water quality programs and includes a paragraph stating that the funds are to be used to "protect, acquire and restore'' the Ballona Wetlands.

The bulldozing plan, if carried out, would negatively affect thousands of wild animals and plants on the 640 acres of wetlands and would "wreak havoc''  on the communities of Playa del Rey, Marina del Rey, Venice, Del Rey and Westchester, as well as Los Angeles International Airport, for nine years at a cost of $270 million, the suit alleges.

The suit seeks a court order preventing further spending of Prop 12 funds set aside for the Ballona Wetlands for anything other than to acquire, protect and restore the area. The plaintiffs also want an accounting of funds. A representative for the Coastal Conservancy did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The Ballona Wetlands State Ecological Reserve is one of the last significant estuarine and freshwater wetland landscapes in coastal Los Angeles County.

The plaintiffs allege there is a "series of murky connections'' between the Southern California Gas Co. storage facility that lies under the wetlands, the State Coastal Conservancy, The Bay Foundation and high-profile groups supporting what the plaintiffs contend is a "deceptive'' project. "We aim to hold (Executive Officer) Sam Schuchat and the Coastal Conservancy he leads accountable,'' said plaintiffs' attorney Bryan Pease. "The public expects when we vote on a bond measure (that) the funds will be spent as the language of the initiative declares.''

The lawsuit alleges there exists a "counterfeit restoration'' that is actually aimed at helping SoCalGas in ``fixing old and adding new infrastructure. ''Elected officials, fearful of another explosion like the one that occurred at Aliso Canyon, have called for shutting down the facility under the Ballona Wetlands, the suit states. "Whether it's collusion or a mysterious set of coincidences, there are too many connections between front-groups funded by the state Coastal Conservancy, the dangerous gas storage facility under the wetlands and engineering contractors receiving millions of dollars to plan a project that would harm wildlife and their habitat,'' said Molly Basler, a climate activist and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Robert Jan "Roy'' van de Hoek, a wetlands scientist and wildlife biologist, said the lawsuit quotes two restoration and historical ecology experts who opined that current science proves the project pushed by The Bay Foundation is not a restoration. Lisa Karlan, a co-founder of the community association DefendBallonaWetlands.org, said it is important to ensure no more funds are misspent as they allegedly have been in the past. "We want a forensic audit of these funds,'' she said. "We want the misspent money returned  and no more public money expended on this boondoggle. We hope Gov. (Gavin) Newsom is listening.''

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