Marina del Rey residents lash out against county’s plan to convert 1.5 acres of existing freshwater wetland into a saltwater marshland park

By Gary Walker

County landscaping plans for converting undeveloped freshwater marshland at Via Marina and Tahiti Way into a saltmarsh wetlands park Image courtesy of L.A. County Dept. of Beaches and Harbors

County landscaping plans for converting undeveloped freshwater marshland at Via Marina and Tahiti Way into a saltmarsh wetlands park
Image courtesy of L.A. County Dept. of Beaches and Harbors

Plans to turn the last sliver of undeveloped land in Marina del Rey into a tidal-influenced saltwater marshland park have become the latest target of vocal dissatisfaction with county redevelopment plans for the harbor.

A Nov. 19 meeting to update residents about the 1.5-acre patch of ground at Via Marina and Tahiti Way — land situated next to other undeveloped land now slated  to become a hotel complex — frequently degraded into a shoutfest, with most of the 58 people in attendance airing a litany of grievances about development in the marina.

Members of local environmental and community groups accused county officials of hiding information about the status of the wetlands, challenged the environmental review of the neighboring hotel project and called for delaying work on the saltwater marsh until after anticipated El Niño storms.

Meanwhile, county officials tried to explain why they want to create a saltwater marshland.

Tony Bomkamp, the biologist in charge of cultivating the wetlands park, said he originally sought to keep the land as a freshwater marshland but the California Coastal Commission instead supported the recommendation of its staff biologist, William Dixon, to create a tidal-supported saltwater marshland.

As it is now, the land is often more dry land than wetland, and Bomkamp said that a saltwater marshland would stay wet throughout the year.

“The kind of seasonal wetland that you’re talking about sometimes doesn’t have any water,” he explained. “Last year it had no water, and in a good year it might be a foot or two. Saltwater [marshland] actually has an equal amount of productivity to it as a rainforest.”

Dr. Edith Read, the biologist in charge of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh near Playa Vista, told The Argonaut this week that saltwater marshland is harder to find along the California coast than freshwater marshland along the California coast.

“We have a long coastline but very limited conditions to create saltwater marshes,” said Read, who is not affiliated with the marina wetlands project. “You can have different types of species in a saltwater wetland, but I wouldn’t go so far to say it has more biodiversity.”

Critics of the county’s plans to create a saltwater marsh in Marina del Rey would prefer the land be left as it is.

“Here we’ve got the remnants or the beginnings of this little freshwater marsh, so why not just leave it there?” asked Cindy Auerbach, a Marina del Rey resident who attended the L.A. County Dept. of Beaches and Harbors meeting at the Marina Del Rey Hotel on Bali Way.

Audience members repeatedly interrupted Bomkamp and Beaches and Harbors planning specialist Michael Tripp as they discussed design plans for the park.

An unfailing critic of the Board of Supervisors and what she calls the county’s “giveaway” of public land to wealthy developers, Marina del Rey resident Nancy Marino refused to let go of her dissatisfaction with the neighboring hotel project, even when after Tripp said that the park and hotel were being treated as separate projects.

The Regional Planning Department voted on July 22 to approve the hotel complex on an adjacent 2.2 acres of the same parcel where the wetland park is planned.  In the run-up to hotel approval, county officials often discussed the wetlands park as a separate but related component of their land use goals for the parcel.

“These are not separate projects,” Marino countered. “They may be different permits, but they are not separate, so please be accurate. This is mitigation for another residential project. We have been saying no since its inception. You have been giving us misinformation and disinformation since I don’t know when.”

“If the hotel is never built, this [wetlands park] will still happen,” responded Aaron Clark, who represents the Hardage Group, the company planning to develop the hotel complex.

The audience appeared unmoved by explanations provided by Clark, Tripp and Bomkamp.

“To tell this group that this doesn’t have anything to do with the hotel is lunacy,” asserted Marina del Rey resident Chris Coffey.

Others tried to tie the removal of trees for replanting Oxford Basin Lagoon to the area’s overall wetlands configuration and raised concerns about El Niño.

The Ballona Institute, a Playa del Rey-based wetlands protection organization, unsuccessfully appealed the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last month to deny approval of the hotel. Ballona Institute Executive Director Marcia Hanscom said during the meeting that construction of a saltwater marshland at Via Marina and Tahiti could be difficult during winter storms.

“As soon as you dig in there, you’re going to have a mess,” Hanscom predicted. “Why not wait?”

Clark and Tripp said the project has a state permit that is due to expire soon and county officials want them to proceed as quickly as possible.

Undaunted, Marino and her allies pledged to contact and lobby the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to halt the wetland project, since it also requires approval from the federal government.