In 2003, it felt like victory: after fighting 30 years to protect Ballona Wetlands near Marina Del Rey and Playa Del Rey, environmentalists saved 600 acres, halting plans by developers for thousands of apartments and big shopping centers. With taxpayer help, the state bought the ecosystem for $140 million.

But now, as plans are being made to “restore”  the only ecosystem of its kind that survives in Los Angeles, environmental groups find themselves locked out of decisions that they say are illegally jumping the gun:

“It's been like a runaway train,” Patricia McPherson of the Grassroots Coalition told L.A. Weekly Tuesday night at a meeting sponsored by the Sierra Club.

The problem? The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. Environmentalists got involved with the Commission when it stepped in to provide oversight on Ballona.

“This is our baby, you're keeping us out,” environmentalists say.

McPherson and others say the restoration commission refuses to consider views of environmental groups. The groups strongly question the Commission's motives and processes — and they question the members that make up the commission.

Rex Frankel has been in the Ballona battle since 1985. He is president of Ballona Ecosystem Education Project (BEEP). “Originally, the community meetings were very cordial,” Frankel says. “We were partners with them.”

No more. Suddenly drastic “alternatives” have been presented — with no input from the people who fought hard to save Ballona Wetlands.

Frankel explains that the current proposals by the Commission would bulldoze and flood the uplands, which make up a critical half of the Ballona Wetlands.

“They decided they wanted to do this massive 'let's just rip it all out' with bulldozers.”

Environmentalists, in response to proposals made by the restoration commission ask: “Who are you and what are you doing and what are these proposals when you haven't even started the EIR [Environmenal Impact Report] process?” McPherson says .

The Commission, which is supposed to be a state agency within the State Water Board “Is racing out with all these different proposals,” McPherson says. “They put the cart before the horse.” She says it seems they already know what they want to “find.”

Playa Vista, a neighborhood located just north of LAX had originally wanted to develop Ballona Wetlands.

“We believe that Playa Vista is involved,” McPherson says. “Everything is fishy at this point.”

John Davis is a community member who has been spearheading public records requests and investigations. The fishy thing, he says, is conflict of interest. “The commission is required to develop a conflict of interest policy, they have never adopted one.”

Also, Davis explains, the Commission is supposed to be made up of state employees, but includes non-state employees who represent non-profit groups with much to gain.

“It appears that they a gravy train of money going through these grants and getting paid for oversight and hiring contractors – but where is the work?” McPherson asks. “Where are the reports?”

“We are not even allowed to be part of the Commission anymore, as an environmental group. … If you look at the minutes that they take at these Commission hearings, … it says 'McPherson complained.'”

“And [Playa Vista] doesn't want the hydrology study because in our lawsuit against them and the City, they suppressed hydrology information.”

The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission did not respond to L.A. Weekly's request for comment.

Marcia Hanscom is co-director of the Ballona Institute, Vice Chair of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Conservation and Sierra Club's Ballona Wetlands Restoration Committee Chair. “We have a very active group that was not only working to save Ballona to begin with, but has been monitoring the restoration … it is already a highly functioning ecosystem.”

That is why environmental groups are pushing for minimally invasive restoration which involves school groups and community members — not bulldozers.

Out of five proposals from the questionable Commission, the state-chosen scientist panel favors the most expensive and most damaging project.

Conservation biologist and Co-Director of Ballona Institute, Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, tells the Weekly there are species that “haven't even been named yet” that would be extinct if the Ballona Wetlands gets bulldozed.

If Ballona Wetlands is preserved “They would go straight onto the endangered list because it would be the only place that they exist.”

Not to mention the extinction of countless Ballona Wetlands hiking trails beloved by the community.

Contact Mars Melnicoff at / follow @marsmelnicoff

LA Weekly