By Gary Walker
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has extended the time for the public to engage with state officials on the environmental process for the Ballona Wetlands, but not to the satisfaction of some local environmentalists.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso told The Argonaut Feb. 26 that her agency decided to extend the deadline for written comments an additional 15 days from Friday, March 1 until March 15.
“We did this in response to many public requests,” Traverso said.
Opponents of a proposed nature center in the region’s last wetlands in recent weeks began to enlist the power officeholders who represent the Playa del Rey area in order to force state officials to increase the time period for the public to give their views on the center as well as a long planned restoration of the ecological reserve.
The Ballona Land Trust, the Sierra Club and the Ballona Institute have appealed to Fish and Wildlife for 90 days for public comment on the wetlands renovation project, which the state agency will be spearheading in conjunction with the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Fish and Wildlife, formerly the Department of Fish and Game, entered into an agreement with the Santa Monica-based Annenberg Foundation Jan. 28 that will allow for a $50-million facility to be constructed near Culver Boulevard in what is known as Area C, near the 90 freeway, in the wetlands.
“We hope this center will become a place where community members can come to learn how nature works, and how each of them is a part of it,” said Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham. “This effort is the kind of legacy project we need, with education programs to help instill a sense of stewardship in these urban communities that might otherwise not be fulfilled.”
Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes the wetlands, sent a letter to Bonham, asking for the additional time for interested parties to be able to respond to the proposed plan.
“The unexpected proposal by the Annenberg Foundation to build a 51,000 square foot interpretive center on the Ballona Ecological Preserve warrants an extension of the public comment period to a full 90 days. This will allow for thoughtful public input,” the councilman wrote. “I am a strong believer that robust public participation in the decision-making process is key to the success of a project. The health of our democracy relies on an open and transparent process that also provides ample comment time.”
A notice of preparation for the wetlands restoration project was issued in July, prior to announcement of the Annenberg Foundation’s proposed facility.
Fish and Wildlife released a revised notice of preparation Feb. 1, which included a 30 day- period for interested parties to submit observations and questions regarding the restoration to state officials.
The new notice includes additional information about “visitor-oriented facilities,” including the proposed nature center. It does not alter any information in the July notice but should be considered in addition to that document’s information, according to state officials.
The center, as proposed, would be an approximately 46,000-square foot building and include an auditorium, classrooms, facilities for an animal adoption and care program, exhibits on wildlife and domestic animals, veterinary facilities limited to care for program-related animals housed on site only, office space for administrative and educational staff, optional retail and concessions space and parking.
Marcia Hanscom, the co-founder of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, said an extension is necessary in order for the public to have an opportunity to examine carefully all of the project impacts to the ecologically sensitive wetlands. She also feels the federal government, which is involved in the Ballona restoration but not with the Annenberg project, should issue a revised environmental impact report.
“It’s a very different project now,” said Hanscom. “There are potential impacts due to putting pavement in the wetlands and potential cultural impacts because there could be Native American burial grounds on that site.”
The Gabrielino/Tongva tribe was prevalent in the area of the wetlands west and east of Lincoln Boulevard, and ancestral artifacts have been found in what is now Phase I of Playa Vista, which is also home to a recently created Gabrielino/Tongva burial ground.
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) has joined Rosendahl in asking for more time for the public input. He recently met with Bonham to personally request an extension to 90 days.
“I believe that having transparency for a project that is this controversial is a good thing,” said the senator.
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands President David Kay could not be reached for comment.
Hanscom and other groups are wary that Fish and Wildlife might not hold pubic scoping hearings as well. After the July notice of preparation was released, several people interested in the restoration attended a function in Marina del Rey Aug. 16 expecting to be able to interact with state officials and submit their questions.
Instead, they were treated to “an open house forum” with illustrations of the planned restoration, but there were no representatives from the agency then known as Fish and Game.
The Annenberg Foundation anticipates beginning construction on the nature center in the summer of 2014, if the environmental documents are approved.