Photo by Keith MayJoey Racano, Huntington Beach's splendidly eccentric musician, activist and raconteur, is embarking on a one-man crusade to raise awareness about the impending destruction of just less than an acre of wetlands near Pacific Coast Highway and Beach Boulevard.
Since April 13—two days after the California Coastal Commission blessed paving over what locals refer to as "Little Shell"—Racano has been planted at ground zero with a sign that states "Save This Wetland."
"I'm educating people in their cars," said Racano, who has no plans to budge until Saturday, when like-minded souls will join him at Little Shell for an Earth Day protest.
This may seem like much ado about not much. Little Shell is a brackish, urban-runoff-fed saltwater marsh teeming with trash. It's within a 23-acre coastal site where the Robert Mayer Corp. of Newport Beach has received the Huntington Beach City Council's permission to build 230 townhomes and duplexes. In exchange for destroying the wetlands, the commission directed Mayer to create 2.8 acres of freshwater wetlands elsewhere in the city.
Wetlands that are four times larger than smelly Little Shell sound terrific, right? Wrong. The new sites are not on the coast but in inland Huntington Beach.
"I think the Coastal Commission was unduly influenced by some illusion that you're gaining wetland," said Gary Gorman, executive director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy. "A saltwater marsh coastal wetland is a lot different than a freshwater wetland."
A coastal wetland is always, well, wet, being fed by the ocean and, occassionally, fresh water and urban runoff. A freshwater wetland, which cannot rely on a constant source of water, dries out throughout the year and perhaps as long as a couple of years under drought conditions.
Coastal wetlands prevent flooding, naturally filter urban runoff, and encourage more biological diversity, providing breeding grounds for several fish species.
"Essentially, it is the start of the food chain," said Gorman. "You don't have that in freshwater wetlands."
Yet there is intense pressure to build on the few remaining saltwater marshes remaining in Southern California. Coastal commissioners who backed building over Little Shell repeated the same rationale used by the project developer: the small wetland is insignificant and cannot be restored.
"I don't agree," Gorman said. "Ultimately, it could be restored. If there was absolutely no potential to restore the wetland, I'd say, sure, it's probably not worth saving. But it seems premature right now. Joined with other wetlands at some future date, it could be a nice system."
Gorman also takes issue with it being considered a 0.8 acre of wetlands. Factoring in the natural "buffer" leading into the wetlands, it's more like a 2-acre ecosystem, he said.
However you cut it, environmentalists fear developers will justify destruction of the remaining coastal wetlands for lucrative beachfront projects simply by creating new wetlands on less valuable plots inland. And they consider the commission's Little Shell decision a dangerous precedent. Allowing the destruction of a wetland for home building—and not another use that benefits the coastline—violates the state Coastal Act, contend two groups that are now mulling a lawsuit.
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Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Shirley Dettloff was among the seven coastal commissioners who voted for the obliteration of Little Shell (there were five dissenting votes). Among those who testified in support of development were Republicans who like voters to think they're environmentalists: GOP Assembly nominee Tom Harman and HB councilmen Ralph Bauer and Peter Green.
The decision comes at a time when coastal wetlands are increasingly threatened. A hearing is scheduled in the Assembly on Monday for a bill by previously eco-friendly Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego)—and co-sponsored by OC's own development stooge Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel)—that would make it easier to fill in wetlands for future homes, roads and office buildings.
So while Racano's campaign to save one small plot of marshland is probably the area's most modest Earth Day commemoration, it's no less important.
Save This Wetland! Earth Day Protest begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Little Shell, Pacific Coast Highway & Beach Boulevard, Huntington Beach. Call (714) 407-1017. For information on other Earth Day events, see the Politics listings in Calendar.