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Environment

Wallis Annenberg's Controversial Visitor Center at Ballona Wetlands: Money Matters

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Tue, Jul 2, 2013 at 5:15 PM

click to enlarge A coyote emerges from the vegetation with the Coyote Bush in Area C of Ballona Wetlands. - JONATHAN COFFIN
  • Jonathan Coffin
  • A coyote emerges from the vegetation with the Coyote Bush in Area C of Ballona Wetlands.
Read the full story "Save Ballona or Pave Ballona?" here.

Heiress Wallis Annenberg's dream of erecting a 46,000-square-foot visitor center/animal adoption facility at the Ballona Wetlands is under fire from several environmental groups and activists -- a backlash that has fueled a growing debate about paving over a chunk of L.A.'s rare open space.

Annenberg wants to undo part of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve -- 640 acres carved out a decade ago to stop Playa Vista from burying the mistreated tidal marsh under a layer of $3,000-per-month apartments. Annenberg played zero role in saving Ballona Wetlands. Now she wants to develop boardwalks, trails, signs and a building -- approaching the size of Aaron Spelling's famed mega mansion The Manor -- at Area C, highly restricted public land that acts as a biological buffer zone between man and wetland.

Environmental groups and Annenberg Foundation don't see eye to eye on what "restoration" is. Some hope to halt Annenberg's plan.

Marcia Hanscom, co-director of Ballona Institute, calls Annenberg's proposal "destruction, not restoration. ...The center will completely alter the habitat for endangered species."

click to enlarge Drawing of the proposed "restoration" of Area C-South of Ballona Wetlands. - ANNENBERG FOUNDATION
  • Annenberg Foundation
  • Drawing of the proposed "restoration" of Area C-South of Ballona Wetlands.
In the Weekly story published online today, Annenberg Foundation executive director Leonard Aube lashed out at the Ballona Institute. Hanscom says that's right from the playbook that environmental public relations people use to "marginalize the one or two key people in the movement."

"Playa Vista did that with me and a couple of others from time to time, but especially me because I am effective at speaking in the public arena," she says.

USC Professor Travis Longcore, an expert on urban ecology and longtime researcher of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem, says state Fish and Wildlife's quiet acquiescence to Annenberg Foundation is motivated by the foundation's vast stores of money.

"It's sad that the state agency is so poor that they can't hire a ranger at the wetlands. Why does the state agency agree to the deal? The cash-strapped state agency wants Annenberg Foundation to pay them to help fund the restoration project," Longcore says.

According to a secret memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the private foundation and three government entities -- and unveiled in January -- Annenberg Foundation would build the controversial $35 million to $45 million visitor center, plus fund its maintenance and operation.

In a curious, seven-page appendix to the MOU, titled "financial summary," state Fish and Wildlife details the money it wants from Annenberg Foundation:

-- $1.5 million for "initial management costs."

-- $832,883 annually for "ongoing management."

-- $831,670 for "total labor cost."

That's sounds like a lot of cash for Fish and Wildlife managers and employees.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies would, in turn, get $85.41 million total, via annual grants from Annenberg to cover operations for the restoration at the wetlands reserve, including field maintenance, staff, equipment, monitoring and exotic plant control.

Is it worth the cost of letting Wallis Annenberg construct a vast structure and invite crowds to now-restricted uplands that protect those same wetlands?

click to enlarge Area C South of Ballona Wetlands - GRACIE ZHENG
  • Gracie Zheng
  • Area C South of Ballona Wetlands
Jordan Traverso, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife, avoided answering L.A. Weekly's questions about the "financial summary," dismissing it as an "irrelevant" document.

Traverso's attitude could be news to thousands of people who are wondering why Gov. Jerry Brown's Fish and Wildlife brass are giving up a major piece of the Ballona ecosystem to development in exchange for Annenberg money.

She says via email:

"The only reason it was included was to detail the KINDS OF activities that would need to be paid for (i.e. - field maintenance, equipment, staff, general maintenance, habitat maintenance, etc.)"

Oh, OK, it's just the kinds of things, not the actual things the state might do with Annenberg's money.

For now, apparently, the public doesn't need to know.

An Environmental Impact Report draft from Fish and Wildlife and its consulting firm ICF International, is expected in late summer, according to Traverso.

If Annenberg's proposal moves forward, construction can begin in 2014 at the earliest.

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