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Huntington Beach Again Considers Annexing Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve

After years of consideration and failed attempts, the Huntington Beach City Council is again considering ownership of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve.

The city council last decided not to move forward with an annexation in 2014. This year the council directed staff to prepare an updated study to determine feasibility of an annexation.

City staff presented findings at the council meeting on Sept. 6, 2022. After discussion, the council asked staffers to continue their study—including looking into financial burdens that would be placed on the city—before further discussion in a council meeting next month.

Under study are 1,500 acres of land—1,300 acres belong to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, 4 acres belong to the Harriet M. Wieder Regional Park and another 61 acres of undeveloped land around it, and the rest of the land is privately owned.

The city’s staff estimated costs for annexing the entire 1,500 acres would run about $450,000, and the city would generate income of up to $30,000 a year from the annexation. Details on potential sources of revenue were not provided by the staff.

City staff said the city would benefit from adding Wieder Park and other land to the city’s park and land inventory. But Councilman Dan Kalmick said councilors “aren’t interested in Wieder Park at all,” saying it is not well-kept.

The staff’s report also showed there are “significant” liability challenges with Bolsa Chica, including expenses required under the Clean Water Act for Estuary—a federal law designed to “address water quality problems in, and promote the ecological integrity of, estuaries,” according to the Association of National Estuary Programs—and maintenance of the Bolsa Chica Tidal Inlet.

At the Sept. 6 meeting, staffers told the council the impact of these liabilities on the city is “completely unknown.”

There are six stakeholders of the area in and around the preserve, including the Orange County Public Works, OC Parks, State Lands Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Coastal Commission, and other Huntington Beach agencies—who were all interviewed for this study.

City staff were told by the county Public Works that the flood control channel on the preserve is not updated and would not be able to handle a large-scale flood, and the burden of repair and updating may fall on the city later.

OC Parks department spokesperson Marisa O’Neil told The Epoch Times that the department owns and maintains the 4-acre Wieder Park and 30 acres of natural habitat surrounding the park—all land that is not part of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

If the city annexes the land, it would become financially responsible for Weider Park. According to the study, the annual maintenance is estimated to be $262,500—which includes the park and land around it. There are also two playgrounds that need to be replaced for another $750,000.

The State Lands Commission owns most of the land within the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and manages finances and contracting for maintenance. This includes annually dredging the ocean inlet and maintaining a field office at the reserve, which is leased with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The State Lands Commission “[does] not anticipate any changes to the Commission’s role at the Reserve as a result of any potential annexation to the city of Huntington Beach,” said spokesperson Sheri Pemberton.

The commission also does not take a position in favor or against the proposed annexation and will continue its partnerships with various agencies to care for the reserve if the city takes over, officials said.

The city must seek annexation approval from the State Lands Commission before moving forward. As a result of this, the commission may revise the boundaries of the annexation before approving.

Adding so much land to the city would require additional police manpower and other staff to support the preservation of the land, the staff report noted.

Some members of the public are opposed to the annexation for fear that the area’s maintenance will be negatively affected.

“I question if the city council network is set up to respect [the ecological reserve],” city resident Ben Pickens, who is a volunteer for state park beaches, wrote to the council. He suggests the land be sold to California State Parks instead.

The city council explored annexing the preserve in 2009 and decided not to go through with it. In 2013, city staff were directed to provide an updated study of annexing the preserve, and—after discussions in 2014—eventually decided not to proceed because of liability concerns and issues with maintenance costs.

The public will find out during one of the city’s October meetings whether the council is interested in moving forward with the annexation.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to comment to The Epoch Times. Huntington Beach city staff, the Coastal Commission, and OC Public Works department did not respond to requests for comment by press deadline.

Julianne Foster

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