Los Cerritos Wetlands advocates consider possible building moratorium for zoning update process

Photos by Sean Belk/Signal Tribune<br><strong>The Los Cerritos Wetlands once spanned 2,400 acres, overlapping both Long Beach and Seal Beach along the mouth of the San Gabriel River. Although degraded over the years by oil pumping and other utility operations, the wetlands is home to threatened and endangered species, including the Belding’s Savannah sparrow, California least tern and the California brown pelican.  </strong>
Sean Belk
Staff Writer

After butting heads for years over development proposals near sensitive wetlands habitats, some local property owners and environmentalists have agreed that a zoning code governing land use on a portion of southeast Long Beach is “outdated” and needs to be revised.
The only dispute now, however, is whether the City should ban any new building projects while the city ordinance is being updated, a procedure that city officials have said could take at least three years to complete.
Los Cerritos Wetlands advocates have supported the City’s decision to initiate a collaborative planning process to revise the Southeast Area Development and Improvement Plan (SEADIP).
The zoning code, established in 1977, governs coastal development by restricting land use, density and building heights on property located near Alamitos Bay and the neighboring wetlands.
However, now that the City is looking to update the decades-old zoning code, environmental lawyers have said that there’s still nothing preventing any property owners from putting forth projects that conform to the existing code, which would ultimately undermine efforts to revise the law.
Michelle Black, attorney for environmental law firm Chatten-Brown & Carstens, said a building moratorium on development in the SEADIP area would help close any loopholes. The attorney presented draft language of a “blanket” building moratorium to the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust at its member meeting on Thursday, March 28 at Kettering Elementary School.
<strong>Michelle Black, attorney for environmental law firm Chatten-Brown & Carstens, gives a presentation to the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust on the possibility of a building moratorium to be implemented as part of a process to update a zoning code, known as the Southeast Area Development and Improvement Plan (SEADIP), which limits land use, density and building heights on property near the wetlands. </strong>
“We want any plan that is approved to have a chance to succeed– not be limited by what’s already there by the time it gets implemented, so a building moratorium is one possible knight in shining armor to fix this,” she said.
Although degraded by oil pumping and other utility operations, the Los Cerritos Wetlands, that once spanned 2,400 acres, overlapping Long Beach and Seal Beach along the mouth of the San Gabriel River, is home to threatened and endangered species, including the Belding’s Savannah sparrow, California least tern and the California brown pelican.
Over the years, however, SEADIP restrictions on property near the wetlands have held back numerous building proposals because of its limits on height, density and land use, ever extending costs and time for all parties involved.
In an attempt to resolve long-fought quarrels over projects along the corridor that is already heavily impacted by traffic, environmentalists and property owners have agreed that the city ordinance should be revised with conciliations from all sides of the spectrum.
“It is our opinion that the zoning is so old and so out of date that, basically, it’s like an area without zoning, which is why you see one huge inappropriate development after another,” said Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, who supports the zoning update even though not all Land Trust members agree.
The most recent failed proposition was a $320-million, mixed-use project to turn the SeaPort Marina Hotel site at 2nd Street and Pacific Coast Highway into a “southeastern gateway” with upscale storefronts, a theater and a 12-story residential and hotel high-rise.
After opponents, including wetlands advocates, vigilantly argued against the project, the Long Beach City Council ultimately rejected the proposal in a divided 5–3 vote in December 2011, voting down an environmental impact report.
The project would have required variances, traffic mitigations, overriding considerations and coastal-development allowances. Most of all, the proposal didn’t conform to SEADIP, which disallows residential use and caps building heights at 35 feet.
Long Beach city officials and the California Coastal Commission, which has ultimate authority over such coastal-development projects, have since called for a full revision to SEADIP. In May of last year, the City was awarded a $929,000 grant from the California Strategic Growth Council to fund the update process.
The revision to the zoning code, which would result in amendments to the City’s General Plan and the Local Coastal Program requiring approval from the Coastal Commission, would involve creating a “citizens committee” made up of local residents, property owners, wetlands advocates and other community members to collaborate on establishing the new law. The revision would also involve a wetlands delineation study of the SEADIP area and an environmental impact report, among other actions.
Just five months after the previous proposal was shot down, however, SeaPort Marina Hotel property owner Taki Sun, Inc., a family-owned property-management firm led by Raymond and Amy Lin, applied for another proposal, only this time without the 12-story, residential building and featuring mostly retail.
<strong>The Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, which was incorporated in 2001 and today has nearly 1,000 members, is committed to facilitating the purchase of acreage in the Los Cerritos Wetlands,while reconnecting and restoring remnants of the estuary and permanently protecting its natural habitat. </strong>
Though the new proposal, called “The Shoppes at 2nd and PCH,” conforms to SEADIP, allowing such a project to move forward before the zoning is updated would possibly unravel the update process, creating the same disputes that have occurred for years, Black said.
“It’s likely that we’ll continue to have the same situation where developers propose projects that comply with the existing SEADIP and need to get variances for projects,” she said. “That will continue the controversy, delays and expense, and we’ll be in the same situation we’re in essentially.”
Black presented language of a possible building moratorium that would last for at least one year, with an option to renew until the SEADIP process is complete. The temporary moratorium would prohibit any “building permit, construction permit, conditional-use permit, administrative-use permit, variance, zone change, or other land-use entitlement for the establishment, or relocation of land uses within the SEADIP area.”
Mike Murchison, a lobbyist for three property owners in the SEADIP area, including Lyon Communities, which owns the “pumpkin patch” site and other property across from the SeaPort hotel on Pacific Coast Highway, said during the Land Trust meeting that expecting the city to conduct the update process in three years is “laughable.”
He said the City hasn’t even selected a consultant or brought the action in front of the City Council for approval to go forward even though it’s already been a year since the City received grant funding to start the process.
“To think that a revision to SEADIP is going to occur in three years, when it requires the EIR and all that, again, on coastal schedule, it’s just not going to happen,” Murchison said. “So when you’re talking about a temporary moratorium, you’re probably talking more along the lines of four to five years, in my opinion.”
He added that proposing a blanket moratorium, meaning it would apply to all property owners, could be problematic since local property owners already have project applications in the pipeline that conform to the existing SEADIP. Murchison questioned whether the City would be able to grant the property owners exemptions, similar to the City’s action in approving a moratorium last year on payday-lending and title-loan companies, which involved “grandfathering” in two out of three applications.
“[Property owners] are attempting to put forth a project that will conform with the current SEADIP, [and] that is going to fly in the face of any moratorium,” he said. “I can see it right now… it’s just going to be a big problem, because that’s what the property owners are banking on, that they can conform, and if it’s a blanket moratorium… I don’t know where it’s going to go. It will probably end up as a legal argument.”
<strong>A rabbit is seen amid foliage of the Los Cerritos Wetlands, which serves as a habitat for various endangered and threatened species. </strong>
Murchison added that such a building moratorium may also hinder wetlands restoration efforts that may also require conditional-use permits. He said the City has sent out a request for proposals (RFP) on hiring a consultant team to take the lead in the update process, and the City has already received 10 applications. He said city staff is now expected to bring a consultant team forward to the City Council in April or May for approval to start the update process.
Long Beach planning staff was unable to be reached for comment before deadline.

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