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Is Heiress Wallis Annenberg Hijacking the Ballona Wetlands?

Is Heiress Wallis Annenberg Hijacking the Ballona Wetlands?
ILLUSTRATION BY JARED BOGGESS

Nudged on by heiress Wallis Annenberg and her promise of more than $50 million in private funds, state officials are ramping up an argument that a chunk of the Ballona Wetlands — a protected ecological reserve — is suited for an urban park with buildings, signs, paths, parking lots and one of the biggest pet-adoption facilities on the Westside.

In a dramatic shift, a state official tells L.A. Weekly that several environmental groups credited with saving the 640 acres of rare surviving coastal wetlands — groups highly critical of the heiress's development plan — are promoting "bullshit."

"Their claims have no merit whatsoever. I think it's all bullshit," says Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy, which has a strong voice in the future of Ballona Wetlands. "In a park-poor part of Los Angeles that has lost most of its historic wetlands ... in whatever way it is restored or enhanced, it will be an urban park — meaning a park in the city."

But Patricia McPherson, president of the 20-year-old Grassroots Coalition, which helped save the land, fires back, "There is nothing rational about building on Ballona. To observe and appreciate nature, you have to step back and preserve nature."

In fact, there is nothing park-poor about the Westside. The Coastal Conservancy said in its "Green Visions Plan" that the Westside has three times more park acreage per capita than the city as a whole.

On the other hand, 95 percent of Southern California's wetlands have been destroyed by development, the greatest wetlands devastation in the nation. Where 2,000 acres of marshes, salt pans and dunes once thrived, the Ballona Wetlands was carved up to build Marina del Rey and Howard Hughes' WWII-era airstrip.

The surviving, degraded ecosystem was saved in 2003 by a 100-group coalition, and the state took ownership, committing to restore the rare coastal marshes and meadows. In 2004, then–state Controller Steve Westly signed a grant deed requiring that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife "use the property for conservation, restoration or recreation purposes only."

Annenberg wants to build her visitor center, including a 11,000-square-foot animal shelter, on the land. Environmentalists are fighting back on a number of fronts, asking why illegal drains were quietly installed on the wetlands more than 10 years ago by developer Playa Capital; why state officials are embracing a 46,000-square-foot visitor center/pet adoption facility; and why three state agencies and Annenberg are pushing a dramatic dredging and refashioning of the wetlands into something it never was.

Annenberg's foundation and state agencies in early 2013 signed a Memorandum of Understanding that has wide-ranging implications for L.A.'s coast. But with all the agencies, nonprofits, environmentalists and biologists now involved, it's difficult to know whose money — public or private — is influencing what, and who's working for whom.

Here's a breakdown of the three key issues:

First, discreet drains have been illegally withdrawing water from Ballona Wetlands, a habitat that requires water, for more than 10 years. The California Coastal Commission never approved the drains and only recently learned of them.

"I'm not sure how this didn't come to our attention sooner," says Andrew Willis, the commission's lone enforcement analyst.

The Weekly has learned that, in 1991, the L.A. Bureau of Engineering approved a permit for Playa Capital, the developer at Playa Vista next to the wetlands. Unknown to the Coastal Commission, Playa Capital then installed two storm drains "to provide localized flood protection for public safety."

Marc Huffman, a spokesman for Playa Vista, insists to the Weekly that Playa Capital installed the drains "in coordination with the California Coastal Commission" — a claim Willis flatly denies. Says Willis, "They are draining water from a habitat that requires water."

Huffman says the drains protect roads from flooding "in the event of a massive storm." However, in an email, the project engineer working to create a freshwater marsh at Ballona Wetlands told the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission that "there would be no chance of any flooding ever reaching the adjacent roadways." Such intense flooding, the engineer told the Restoration Commission, "would be something on the order of the 1,000,000-year event (purely a guess but you get the idea)."

Environmentalists stumbled upon the two 4-foot-wide, corrugated metal drain openings last year. Playa Capital received a stinging letter from Willis and has agreed to cap the drains.

Beyond the drain controversy, a battle is under way over "restoration" of the wetlands. Three state agencies — Fish and Wildlife, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and the Coastal Conservancy — have partnered with the Annenberg Foundation to pursue an extensive dredging, bulldozing and reshaping of the land.

Their plan, including a "full-tidal," year-round ocean wetland, is strenuously opposed by groups including several Audobon Society chapters, a committee of the Sierra Club — Angeles Chapter, the Ballona Institute, the L.A. County Democratic Party and the League of Humane Voters. They want a restoration that leaves far less of man's imprint and respects Ballona's freshwater-to-brackish environment.

"We should work with what we have now, what has persisted, rather than what hasn't been," says Dr. Margot Griswold, a restoration ecologist. "Their premise is to restore the wetlands to a full-tidal environment — when in fact it was never [that] type of environment in over 4,000 years."

L.A. Weekly tried repeatedly to reach Annenberg but was referred by her director of communications, Allison Holmes, to state Fish and Wildlife's media officer for Ballona Wetlands. That media officer, Jordan Traverso, did not return the Weekly's calls.

Schuchat, of the Coastal Conservancy, argues, "You can't restore things in a heavily altered urban landscape such as this, so the word 'restoration' is not the best word" for the conservancy's plan at Ballona.

He believes the three state agencies and Annenberg can revitalize the wetlands, saying, "The question is what is the best ecosystem function you can create in a place like this." But the Grassroots Coalition's McPherson calls it "putting something into place that isn't habitat."

Schuchat declares, "It doesn't matter what we plan to do at Ballona. [Ballona Institute's] Marcia [Hanscom] and her friends will oppose it no matter what — because that's what they do."

In any case, much power now rests with Wallis Annenberg. Even the website for the state's official project, ballonarestoration.org, is not controlled by the state. Fish and Wildlife's Ballona restoration Web page is blank, redirecting readers to an IP address also registered to the Annenberg Space for Photography, according to statsnode.com.

Critics suggest the state groups are mostly after Annenberg's millions. Her group has issued a deadline of December for the state to issue "all permits and regulatory approvals necessary to permit the Foundation to commence construction of the Ballona Interpretive Center." In return, the state will receive $1 million over five years.

A few years ago, Annenberg proposed nearly the same interpretive center/pet shelter idea on coastal public land in Rancho Palos Verdes. She withdrew that proposal following a public backlash.

At Ballona, she wants parking spaces, walkways, bike paths — and some 180 exhibits — as part of her tentatively named Wallis Annenberg Interpretive Education and Ecology Center at Ballona Wetlands. George Miers, principal architect with Swatt Miers, speaking in an online video, says the project will be so carefully designed, including grassy rooftops, that "birds flying over this building would be hard-pressed to find this building."

The two sides are expected to tangle in court if the state groups ultimately approve an Environmental Impact Report that supports extensive dredging and reshaping.

Eric Strauss, professor of urban ecology at Loyola Marymount University, argues for the state's and Annenberg's plan, saying, "If you want people to love the Ballona Wetlands, we need to put them in the wetlands."

But Marcia Hanscom, of Ballona Institute and the Sierra Club, says, "It's not what a public ecological reserve should be."