Mark McDermott

Battle over harbor zoning intensifies

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by Mark McDermott

After a nearly decade-long pitched battle over harbor zoning, things managed to become somewhat more muddled in the wake of Tuesday night’s City Council action.

The council voted to send its proposed Coastal Land Use Plan to a citywide public vote, possibly as soon as November. But the action fell short of demands made by Building a Better Redondo – the citizens group that two years ago passed Measure DD, which requires significant zoning changes go to a public vote – and almost certainly means that the city will now be forced to defend itself against a lawsuit threatened by BBR.

At issue is whether zoning enacted in June, 2008, that would allow up to 400,000 sq. ft. of new development in the harbor area should also be subject to a public vote. BBR has argued that the zoning is subject to Measure DD, which voters passed in November 2008. City Attorney Mike Webb argued that the zoning was effectively in place prior to DD and therefore is not legally subject to a public vote.

Mayor Mike Gin said the council’s action marked the end of the Heart of the City, a proposed harbor development plan passed in 2002 that would have allowed as much as 1.6 million sq. ft. of development in the harbor. Gin said the new zoning “package” represented an imperfect but balanced compromise and questioned why BBR would want to prolong the zoning conflict.

“Is it really worth throwing everything out for those couple of things maybe you disagree with?” Gin asked. “To me, it’s not. We have worked on this for almost 10 years and it has been a public process where there have been numerous meetings and frankly, I am proud of it.”

Gin stressed that the zoning and land use plan would give the city planning tools it formerly did not possess and said that specific projects would still be subject to council approval. Developers, he said, are aware that massive projects will not pass in Redondo Beach.

“They can be sure they are going to be scrutinized,” Gin said. “Every single thing down there is going to be put through the ringer.”

But Councilman Bill Brand, a former leader of BBR who has actively raised funds to support a lawsuit against the city aimed at forcing a citywide vote, said the council’s action was out of step with what an overwhelming majority of voters approved when they approved Measure DD. He argued that a development cap of 400,000 sq. ft. was simply too high and should be reduced to closer to 100,000 sq. ft.

“I hear what you are saying, ‘Trust us, this isn’t going to happen,” Brand said to Gin. “But I’ve got to tell you, most people in Redondo signed referendums going back nine years. We heard the same arguments in 2001 and 2002 when you were rezoning for 3,000 condos – just trust us.”

Brand, who argued that the new zoning came out of harbor task force appointed by the city manager, said that he would support a no vote on the coastal land use plan in hopes that the city could go back to the drawing board and use a more inclusive process.

“I hope if this doesn’t pass we can hit the restart button,” he said.

The Coastal Land Use Plan would enable the city to approve projects in its harbor area without seeking the approval of the California Coastal Commission, the state agency charged with oversight of coastal access and development issues. The council approved 17 Coastal Commission modifications to its land use plan – ranging from view corridor protections to the required building of a new public boat launch – that would ensure certification of the plan by the commission.

Councilman Steve Diels said the land use plan achieves what supporters of BBR have long wanted.

“Where there were no limits, we are talking about putting in limits,” he said. “We are downzoning. We are codifying something everyone agrees with anyhow…They want their views protected, and yet they don’t approve of this. I am trying to tell you this is what we are doing. The Coastal Commission has your back. We have your back.”

The Coastal Commission reviewed the proposed land use plan last July and approved it subject to its proposed modifications. That action, however, is at the heart of the potential BBR lawsuit. BBR claims that new harbor zoning does not become effective until the land use plan has been certified by Coastal Commission.

Webb, however, said that if BBR’s argument prevailed in court or at the ballot box, the actual zoning that would go in place would either be the Heart of the City zoning – which allowed 1.6 million sq. ft. in development – or the unlimited development allowed in the city’s 1964 harbor zoning. But Webb stood by his opinion that new harbor zoning went into effect in 2008, and said that the city could not subject that zoning to a public vote now even if the council so wished.  To do so, he said, could subject the city to lawsuits from harbor property owners.

“It’s not a question of preference,” Webb said. “You can’t just change zoning by ballot.”

The council voted to approve the Coastal Commission modifications and send the land use plan to a public vote in a 4 to 1 vote, with Brand dissenting.

Councilman Matt Kilroy expressed astonishment at Brand’s vote.

“Bill Brand voted for unlimited development, and voted against putting it out to a vote of the people,” Kilroy said.

“It’s absurd to think there is now unlimited zoning on the Redondo waterfront or that I support that,” Brand said.  “Any project will have to be approved by the City Council and then the Coastal Commission.  Both have the discretion right now to reject projects based on environmental impacts or violations of the Coastal Act.”

AES: no park

In public testimony prior to the vote, one area of harbor confusion appeared to gain some clarity. Eric Pendergraft, the AES Southland president, said that the corporation’s Redondo Beach power plant isn’t going anywhere. The AES power plant was part of the Heart of the City plan – in which it would have been downsized and converted to a residential neighborhood – and more recently was subject to a citywide advisory vote that called for a public park in its place.

Pendergraft told the council that he supported the current harbor rezoning and said that AES had no desire to return to the Heart of the City and no intention of becoming a park.

“We don’t intend to shut down that facility,” Pendergraft said. “We don’t intend to turn it into a park.”

Pendergraft said after the meeting that the plant would modernize and potentially downsize its footprint, which could entail more open space, if not a park. He also said AES was in preliminary discussions with the West Basin Municipal Water District regarding the possibility of utilizing the power plant as a desalinization plant. The water district currently has a desalinization pilot project in the former AES pump station on Harbor Drive.

Brand, who established the South Bay Parkland Conservancy, a non-profit that advocates for a public park at the AES site, was undaunted.

“The effort to incentivize AES not to rebuild their plant is ongoing,” he said. “A beautiful waterfront park is exactly what the South Bay needs. San Francisco and Chula Vista are ridding their waterfronts of three power plants.  With political will and leadership we can do the same here in the South Bay.” ER

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