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Wetlands Issues Still Swirl In Controversy

Published 4/9/2009 on Grunion Gazette

Issues surrounding the Los Cerritos Wetlands continue to churn, with a proposed land swap headed back to the City Council next month and an AQMD violation notice issued in connection with the grading of another parcel next to the wetlands.

    Sean Hitchcock, owner of 2H Construction, was cited April 3 by the Air Quality Management District for “Excavation on a landfill without having an approved excavation management plan.” Hitchcock sparked a storm of controversy March 20 when he had his crews scrape weeds off a nine-acre parcel between Loynes Drive and the Los Cerritos Channel.

The land is zoned as open space and potential wetlands under the SouthEast Area Development and Improvement Plan (SEADIP). Hitchcock, who had purchased the land from Tom Dean, said he had been told there was a weed abatement order for the property.

    City officials said there still was a need for a work permit, and issued a cease and desist order. The property is a former landfill, and AQMD officials tested the site on March 26, detecting methane emissions.

    The notice to comply requires Hitchcock to file a plan and complete work to add topsoil and compact it to stop the methane leak. There is no requirement to add vegetation or restore the property to its original state, as environmentalists are demanding.

    “There’s an order in place to recap the property with about 6 inches of fill,” said Suzanne Frick, assistant city manager. “We’ve addressed the matter with the state Coastal Commission to expedite the permit to let that happen. And we are in ongoing discussions as to what other penalties or remedies should take place.”

    Hitchcock has said he does not believe the property is wetlands, and that he purchased it in hopes of adding soccer fields there. Third District Councilman Gary DeLong said that while the city attorney looks at potential punishment, the focus should be on the future of the land.

    “Our focus should be on what the best method is to acquire that land and place it in the public domain,” DeLong said. “The alternative is to allow Mr. Hitchcock to go through the feasibility studies to put soccer fields there.

    “There are three alternatives. A nonprofit could come forward to raise funds to acquire the property. The Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority could acquire the land directly. Or the city could pursue another land swap. But before the city could do that, we should complete the current land trade — and by complete I mean have the property in the Wetlands Authority’s hands.”

Trade Coming Back

    The trade DeLong refers to is with Tom Dean. It would give the city title to about 34 acres of land southeast of Second Street behind the Marketplace shopping center in exchange for about 12 acres in west Long Beach known as the San Francisco Yard and currently used as a Public Works maintenance yard. The land Dean owns currently is a working oil field (and Dean would retain the mineral rights), but some of the property currently has wetlands marsh areas and the rest is believed to be degraded wetlands.

    A split City Council approved the trade in concept on Feb. 10. At that time, the motion included a provision allowing City Manager Pat West to complete the deal without another review by the council. However, City Attorney Robert Shannon expressed reservations about that approach.

    Since that time, Fifth District Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske — who opposed the trade — has said she has uncovered details about the deal she wants discussed.

    “If there have been any material changes in the deal, then absolutely it should come back to the council,” DeLong said. “It’s my understanding that Councilwoman Schipske is alleging that a staff member has been unprofessional in his actions and felt a closed session was needed. It’s my understanding that there has not been any unethical conduct, but I want to keep an open mind.”

    Shannon said this week that he plans to call a closed session some time in May to discuss the negotiations, and Fricke confirmed that the council would be asked to take a final public vote on the deal.

    “I can’t go into detail since it is still being negotiated,” Frick said. “But issues such as remediation of the land and the $500,000 relocation cost (moving the Public Works yard) are still on the table.”

    Long Beach’s City Charter says specifically that the City Council has final say on any property transactions, Shannon said, which means it should be part of the final land trade.

    “In the last open session, all the material points had not been finalized,” Shannon said. “… The integrity of the process is better served if we have another closed session, then report out of that in an open session.”

    Shannon said the timing of the closed session will depend on the progress of the negotiations. Once the deal is essentially complete, it will be brought to the council. A public meeting on the trade wouldn’t take place until the following week, he added.

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