Published on 3/30/2007 on Press-Telegram
By Joe Segura, Staff Writer
Local activist Pat Towner fights to join the committee shaping development near the Los Cerritos Wetlands
When Pat Towner glances across Los Cerritos Wetlands on the Eastside of Long Beach, she sees dark clouds on the horizon, in the form of high density populations and buildings double their current size – all dangers, she contends, to the sensitive wetland ecosystems.
And all dangers, she adds without a pause, to her, to her family, and to neighbors and nearby neighborhoods, thanks to potential pollution from bumper-to-bumper gridlock traffic.
The high density populations and taller buildings are being mapped out in a proposed revision of the Southeast Area Development and Improvement Plan – a policy that governs development codes for the area. The effort is being led by 3rd District City Councilman Gary DeLong, who has formed a committee to advise him on a draft of the revision.
The revision has been hammered out behind closed doors, and Towner has been pushing – even with a formal complaint to the City Attorney's office – to force the advisory committee's proceedings into the public arena. To date, her plan has had no success.
However, Towner isn't throwing in any towel, although the proposed SEADIP plan should be made public Friday, allowing for public review before workshops now scheduled for the city's Planning Commission meeting April 5.
By then, Towner predicts, people will be allotted three minutes at the commission podium – limiting, she said, a speaker's ability to discuss a complicated planning policy and ending up with high population density, traffic gridlock patterns, threatened wetland ecosystems and potential health hazards.
Not so, according to DeLong, who said residents will embrace the final plan.
"Neither the city or committee are the final decision (makers)," he said, adding that he expects the SEADIP plan to evolve. "The plan will be what the community wants, at the end of the day."
Towner's concerns about closed meetings are rooted in processes she recalled as always being open to public scrutiny.
She had the ear of former Councilwoman Jan Hall, who chaired a committee's drafts of the original SEADIP policy.
Towner also was among the authors of the city's Local Coastal Plan, which involves a larger area and includes the SEADIP area mostly along Pacific Coast Highway near the city's eastern border.
And she served a short stint as a member of the South Coast Coastal Commission, in the days when the panel was split between the northern and southern parts of the state.
As a member of the commission, she had been a persistent proponent of public access to coastal resourcesand to the process of policy development and decisions. Open forums, she said, provide for clear consensus, even from diverse groups such as developers and environmentalists.
"It was really contentious," she recalled of public meetings at Bixby Park in the late 1970s, when the LCP and SEADIP were hammered into policies that have dictated development standards for three decades.
Back then, the breakthrough to setting the growth guidelines was the willingness of developers to sit down at the negotiation table, Towner recalled.
"We all owned it," she said of the LCP and SEADIP policies. "We didn't all like it, but we all owned it."
New vs. old
The revised SEADIP policy is evolving, but one map details potential zone changes that would allow new height limits that double the current 30-foot limit, including the SeaPort Marina Hotel site at Second Street and Pacific Coast Highway, and north along the highway near Loynes Drive near the Golden Sails Hotel and Gaslamp restaurant.
Towner and critics contend that would block views of the ocean, including between structures.
DeLong counters that there would be variety of structures, instead of one flat look to the area.
Heights would range between four and seven stories, he said.
"There's no discussion to just increase the height across the board," he said.
The map also suggests zone changes for a block of undeveloped land south of the Marketplace, known as the Pumpkin Patch, because pumpkins are sold during Halloween, and Christmas trees are sold during the winter.
Environmentalists consider it to be part of the Los Cerritos Wetlands – and they want it to remain undeveloped.
DeLong noted that it is now zoned for light industrial use, and the zone designation could be changed to office-retail, adding that no final decision has determined that the property is wetlands.
If the land is determined to be wetlands, he said, then there will be no development. If it isn't, he added, then a different form of development could be done.
"At the end of the day, no matter what it's built for, you can't build on wetlands," he said.
The current SEADIP review process has not been open to the public, and that's the way DeLong wants it.
The rookie councilman appears sure-footed when deflecting criticisms from Towner and others.
He kept the review committee to nine members.
"We tried to keep it to manageable size," he said.
DeLong emphasized the plan would reflect the input of the community.
"This plan is going to evolve," he said. "This needs to be a community plan."
Towner said she's asked repeatedly to be in on the revision review sessions, but she's been rejected.
Last week, in her letter to the City Attorney's office, Towner contested DeLong's closed-door strategy, saying it violated the state open public review Brown Act regulations.
"If we are only allowed to react and not allowed to have any input from the beginning, as residents of this area, we are at a distinct disadvantage," she said in a statement prior to sending the complaint.
However, the City Attorney's office promptly dismissed Towner's assertion of wrongdoing.
City Attorney Bob Shannon's letter states, in part, that the public access Brown Act applies to advisory committees of a local agency, such as the City Council, which needs to form the committee through a formal vote.
"Since the SEADIP Advisory Committee is only advisory to Councilman DeLong, and was not formed pursuant to an action of the City Council, the Brown Act is not applicable to its meetings," Shannon stated.
Even the reports, including a map pinpointing the areas of growth, were out of reach of the public's view, because they had not been finalized by the nine-member SEADIP revision committee, according to Suzanne Frick, director of the city Planning Department.
"Those are typically not available, when we're working on a draft," she said.
Joe Segura can be reached at email@example.com or at (562) 499-1274.