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Photo by Keith MayIf there's a plan that would finally end the battle over the Bolsa Chica mesa, you can bet that Huntington Beach City Councilman Dave Garofalo will surely defend his constituents to the end. And by constituents, we mean, of course, those developers and landowners who want to cover the mesa with more than 1,000 tract homes.
Bolsa Chica has been the subject of environmental fighting for so long most people can't remember a time when the wetlands and the mesa overlooking them weren't controversial. One of the largest and most beautiful coastal watersheds between San Francisco and the Mexican border, Bolsa Chica is home to dozens of fish, bird and mammal species.
Those critters will likely have to take a hike should Newport Beach-based developer Koll Co. ever succeed in building homes on the upper and lower mesa, which spread north from the corner of Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway to Bolsa Chica Road. That's why the March 5 Huntington Beach City Council meeting was such a pleasant surprise. In a plan both simple and final, Mayor Pam Julien Houchen proposed that the city simply buy the mesa from its owner, Signal Landmark (Koll's Hearthside Homes division is the project developer). After contentious debate, the council voted 4-3 to begin negotiations to purchase the mesa, which currently sits on unincorporated land.
One of those voting against the plan was, of course, Garofalo, the city's most developer-friendly councilman. But Garofalo did more than simply vote against Julien Houchen's proposal. Whereas others might simply be content with ridiculing the plan in public, Garofalo took one step further by actually helping the landowner prepare for its negotiations with the city for a taxpayer-funded purchase.
"Rock bottom, the land would be valued at $500,000 per acre," Garofalo told the Los Angeles Times before the council meeting. "That's a minimum $200 million transaction."
Keep in mind Garofalo didn't have an appraisal of the land when he blurted out such an astronomical figure. Keep in mind Garofalo was saying the city would have to buy at least 400 acres. Keep in mind that in theory, Garofalo works for all of Huntington Beach's residents, not just for the well-heeled Bolsa Chica landowner.
Both Koll Co. spokeswoman Lucy Dunn—who handles all negotiations for the landowner—and Garofalo refused to comment on how much the mesa is worth. To find out for ourselves, the Weekly spent about half an hour in the county assessor's office.
The upper and lower mesa land that Koll Co. wants to develop constitutes roughly 148 acres. That land is divided into five parcels, all of which carry a "rural" designation. The parcels carry assessed values ranging from $12,000 to $4 million. County data shows that the total assessed value for the 148 acres is $6.3 million, which comes to just more than $42,000 per acre.
That's a lot of money, but nowhere near Garofalo's hysterical $500,000 per acre. Critics might point out that zoning the land for residential development would jack up its value, which is true but irrelevant: the proposal for a public buyout comes after years of failed attempts to zone the land for residential development. A plan drafted in 1970 called for hotels, restaurants and 5,700 homes spread out over the entire Bolsa Chica property and overlooking a 1,300-slip marina set in the wetlands itself. By the early 1990s, popular opposition had eliminated the hotels, restaurants and marina and cut the number of homes to 3,300. In 1997, continuing pressure squeezed the proposal to 1,235 tract homes on the upper and lower mesa only. Then, four months ago, the California Coastal Commission dealt yet another blow to Koll, reducing the developable land to 73 acres on the upper mesa only.
Julien Houchen's proposal would finally reduce the project to zero acres—the goal some environmentalists have envisioned all along. But it's an impossible goal if the city has to pony up Garofalo dollars.