Published 3/26/2009 on Grunion Gazette
Calls started to come into City Hall and Third District Councilman Gary DeLong on Friday morning.
Someone was bulldozing the Los Cerritos Wetlands, residents said.
The calls were still coming, and the volume of complaints increasing, at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
It turns out that the crew was scraping a section of land across a channel from the wetlands, next to Loynes Drive and near Studebaker Road. A new owner, Sean Hitchcock, said he didn’t believe the property was wetlands.
But whether the property actually is wetlands or not, it is in a protected zone and the owner needed permits from both the city and the state Coastal Commission to do any work there.
“We started getting calls pretty early Friday morning,” City Manager Pat West said. “We checked, and no permits were issued, so we issued a stop work notice. About two hours later, we heard there still was some work going on, so I went out there.”
Hitchcock said he had purchased the property less than a month before from Tom Dean, and that he was clearing weeds, as had been ordered by the city.
“All that was out there was weeds,” he said. “There were no nesting sites, no pickle grass — just weeds. I was told that there was a weed abatement order, and that’s what I was doing.”
Hitchcock said he had purchased the nine acres with plans to create soccer fields there.
“I had talked with parks and rec, and was looking for a site for park space with athletic fields,” he said. “There’s not that much around. This site was pretty trashed, and I was just going to clean it up and put in grass before getting the permits for the sports fields.”
But the property is zoned in the SEADIP master plan as open space, and it is next to the Los Cerritos Channel. There is no doubt the grading should not have been done, West said.
“We responded that there still was no need for this magnitude of work, and that any work required a permit,” West said Monday. “We are aware that his intention is open space, but he still needs permits, and there was no application for that.”
The supposed weed abatement order appears to have been a miscommunication. Deputy Chief Mike Garcia, the city’s fire marshal, said he had been asked by a resident at Belmont Shores Mobile Home Park to look at the property, but the only communication was to control weeds along the fence bordering the park.
Mike Murchison, a spokesman for Tom Dean, said that the notice was delivered to Dean and given to Hitchcock after the land sale. Hitchcock said he did not receive a notice in writing.
Tuesday night, City Council members decried the bulldozing, and said some fines or a requirement for restitution is in order.
“This is pretty clearly a case of just do it and ask for forgiveness later,” Eighth District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich said. “In this case, that’s not good enough.”
“As a member of the (state) Coastal Commission, I know there is a process to assess fees and fines,” Second District Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal added. “I would hope that we are pursuing that course.”
West said the city has been in contact with Coastal Commission staff and was working with them about the matter.
The land Hitchcock purchased was never part of a large land trade proposal between the city and Dean. It is road frontage along Loynes Drive between the Belmont Shores Mobile Home Park and Studebaker Road, and is separated from most of the wetlands property by the Los Cerritos Channel, which feeds the AES power plant.
Craig Beck, the city’s director of Development Services, said the property is part of the SEADIP (Southeast Area Development and Improvement Plan) master zoning that stretches back to the mid-1970s. The city currently is attempting to update that plan.
Beck met with Hitchcock Tuesday. He said any development is a long ways away.
“I told him that even a soccer operation would require a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) document and likely an EIR (Environmental Impact Review) in addition to a zoning change,” Beck said.
Most of the center portion of the land was scrapped to bare dirt before the work stopped. A small hill of mixed dirt, gravel and asphalt also was deposited near the entrance to the property.
Hitchcock said he wanted to do what is best for the city.
“I’m not looking for a fight,” he said. “This could cost millions, and all I’d get out of it is a place to have my kids play soccer.
“I’ve asked the city what they want to do. Maybe they could take it and give me some place that needs a soccer field. But it will be a huge task to ever make that wetlands.”