California to Purchase Ballona Wetlands for Restoration

LOS ANGELES, California, September 22, 2003 (ENS) - The only remaining large coastal wetlands ecosystem in Los Angeles County - an area sheltering endangered and thretened species that has been fought over for 30 years - is about to be purchased by the state of California for restoration.

Governor Gray Davis Thursday announced his intent to sign two bills, setting the stage for the state to acquire Ballona Wetlands, which has been nominated as a Wetlands of International Importance in accordance with the United Nations' Ramsar Convention.

The purchase agreement, already signed by the owners Playa Vista, LLC, now goes to the Wildlife Conservation Board for approval of $139 million in funding for the purchase from Propositions 12 and 50.

"Open space is a valuable and rare commodity in urban environments - especially in Los Angeles," said Governor Davis. "Voters have sent a message that they want California's environmental resources preserved. This acquisition will provide open space, recreation and public access for the enjoyment of future generations."


The Ballona Wetlands area is surrounded by the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. (Photo by Robert Kinslow courtesy California Wild Nature)
Marcia Hanscom, a member of the national board of the Sierra Club and executive director of Wetlands Action Network, whose organization has overseen much of the litigation efforts opposing Playa Vista for the last eight years, praised Governor Davis' efforts. "The Governor displayed real leadership in supporting this important acquisition," said Hanscom.

"We asked the state of California to negotiate for more land than was considered in the original sale option, and the governor's representatives tripled the amount of land the public will potentially receive," Hanscom said.

The wetlands are part of 1,087 acres currently owned by Playa Vista, stretching from the 405 Freeway to the Pacific Ocean. This property was once owned by industrialist Howard Hughes, and includes land used to house his private airport and the hangar where he built his famous Spruce Goose airplane.

The purchase agreement that goes before the Wildlife Conservation Board involves 193 acres of land west of Lincoln Boulevard and is part of an overall package of land now owned by Playa Vista.

Legislation sponsored by State Senator Debra Bowen, a Marina del Rey Democrat, transfers an adjacent parcel of 64 acres of land from its current trust status to full state ownership. The land, located on the coast between Los Angeles Airport and Marina del Rey, includes almost 300 acres that Playa Vista is transferring to the state for no charge.

Combined with an additional 60 acres to be transferred for no charge early next year under a related agreement, some 600 acres in total - almost a square mile - will be owned by the state.

Today, Playa Vista is pursuing a plan for its development that is "smaller and greener than the master plan envisioned about a decade ago," the company says on its website. The new plan contains less than half the number of residential units, a third less office space and nearly 70 percent less retail area. Along with these reductions is an increase in parks and open space - from 50 percent to 70 percent of the 1,086 acres that encompass the entire Playa Vista development.

This reduction in development is made possible by Playa Vistas agreement with the Trust for Public Land, which allows the state of California to purchase land west of Lincoln Boulevard for preservation as open space.


The west bluffs of Ballona Wetland from as seen from east of Lincoln Boulevard (Photo courtesy West Bluffs Conservation Committee)
The acquisition takes on added importance since some 95 percent of the original coastal wetlands in Southern California have been destroyed or degraded. As a result, the Ballona wetlands have been the subject of numerous lawsuits by those who objected to its development. Over the past 30 years, saving it has become a primary focus for environmentalists and community members.

Legislation authored by Assemblyman George Nakano, a Torrance Democrat, re-appropriates $25 million from Proposition 12 that was earmarked for the Ballona Wetlands, and sets the stage for the full restoration of these wetlands.

The Coastal Conservancy will oversee that restoration beginning with a five year planning process that will involve full participation by the public.

"This is a dream come true for the people of Los Angeles," said California Secretary for Resources Mary Nichols, who praised the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that was instrumental in securing an option on the land and will maintain the land once it is acquired. "This acquisition will provide open space, recreation and education opportunities for the public, and a home for many species for whom this will be an oasis in the heart of a dense urban setting."

The acquisition provides congested Southern California with habitat for endangered and threatened species including the California brown pelican and Belding's savannah sparrow.

The area is a local nesting site of the great blue heron and habitat for at least 10 species of reptile and amphibian species. More than 90 native species of bird were sighted at the wetlands over last seven months.

"This land is very valuable real estate, and big developers like Playa Capital have pushed for years to build on it for their own profit," said Susannah Churchill of Environment California which was involved in the struggle to save the Ballona wetlands. Californians now and in the future will have Governor Davis to thank for the protection for some of the state's last remaining wetlands."

The acquisition of the Ballona Wetlands complements other important acquisitions in the Los Angeles area, including saving the $65 million acquisition of Cornfield and Taylor Yards, the largest remaining open space in downtown Los Angeles, and the $41 million acquisition of Vista Pacifica in Baldwin Hills, which will now be joined directly to the Ballona Wetlands through bicycle trails.