Ryan McDonald

Uncertainty over Greenbelt project risks big fines for city

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A view of the proposed Greenbelt Infiltration project, which would run underground between Second and Herondo streets. Image courtesy City of Hermosa Beach

by Ryan McDonald

Hermosa Beach is facing looming deadlines and the potential for hefty fines over setbacks to a planned project to clean up local beaches.

The Greenbelt Infiltration Project is the largest remaining regional effort in the Beach Cities Enhanced Watershed Management Plan (EWMP), an agreement among Hermosa, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District to cooperatively address stormwater runoff. But the project, proposed for the area under the Greenbelt between Second and Herondo streets, has drawn intense opposition from surrounding residents. Efforts to find alternative locations outside the city boundaries have so far not succeeded, and according to the city manager’s office have caused the other cities to look into dissolving the agreement reached over the Greenbelt project.

“That is an alarming report from the City Manager’s office,” Councilmember Justin Massey said at a council meeting last month. “The only way we are protected from liability is through the EWMP. If that is dissolved, we are out of compliance and subject to penalties that can approach $37,500 per day. It is incumbent on us to find a way to eliminate that risk.”

The fines Massey was referring to are imposed on municipalities under the federal Clean Water Act. The EWMP gives its members immunity from the act’s penalties until July 2021, the deadline set for the Beach Cities to meet targets for bacteria levels after wet weather. That immunity could disappear even sooner if the impasse over the Greenbelt project leads to an irresolvable disagreement about how the EWMP would meet water quality targets.

The project would divert some of the water that would otherwise flow to the ocean from the Herondo storm drain to an “infiltration” gallery under the Greenbelt, which would absorb a portion of the “first flush” following a rain, when the concentration of pathogens is highest. Samples taken by environmental groups have consistently shown the area around the Herondo outfall to have among the worst wet weather water quality of anywhere in the Santa Monica Bay.

But when city officials began holding meetings about the project last year, nearby residents reacted with surprise and then anger. According to a tabulation by staff, more than 700 residents live within 500 feet of the proposed site, and the Moorings townhomes abutt the proposed site.

In the ensuing months, these residents have organized politically around a message of supporting the project’s environmental goals while arguing that Hermosa’s small size means that putting the project anywhere in the city would create unacceptable quality of life impacts. “There are no viable locations anywhere in Hermosa Beach for a stormwater infiltration project,” said Xavier Hass, a Moorings resident who is also on the board of the property’s homeowners’ association, at a Feb. 26 council meeting.

In response to the uproar, the City Council began exploring alternate locations in the city, and in October also agreed to form a subcommittee to reach out to Redondo and Torrance to explore siting a project there. These efforts have won Hermosa a temporary reprieve from outraged residents, but have created new complications for the city with state and regional officials.

In late December, the State Water Resources Control Board sent Hermosa a “Breach of Agreement” letter over its failure to submit half a dozen required documents, including three quarterly progress reports on the Greenbelt project. Hermosa is the lead agency on the project, and these documents were needed under the terms of a $3.1 million grant that the state awarded the EWMP in March 2018. The grant would pay for approximately half of the cost of the Greenbelt project, with the remainder assigned to EWMP members based on the share of runoff they contributed.

The breach letter acknowledged that Hermosa had alerted the board that “public outreach efforts for the Project have sparked some opposition to the Project’s location from the local community,” but said that continued delays “may result in significant action” by the state board, including eliminating the grant.

George Kostyrko, director of the office of public affairs for the state board, said in an email that while local opposition occasionally impeded projects receiving state grant funding, it was “fairly rare” for there to be “significant public opposition to buried infrastructure like the Hermosa Beach Infiltration project,” which he predicted would have minimal post-construction impact on the community.

Hermosa has since submitted the required documents to the state, but its difficulties are not over. The city also included a request for a five-month extension of the project completion date, to Aug. 3, 2021. That falls after the July 2021 deadline by which the Beach Cities are required to meet bacteria targets under the EWMP. The watershed plan identifies the Greenbelt project as the “highest priority regional project,” and the Beach Cities would be unlikely to meet bacteria targets without it, or another project or series of projects capturing a similar volume of runoff.

Obtaining an extension of the bacteria compliance deadline would require approval from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. Renee Purdy, assistant executive officer with the regional board, said that the board has granted extensions in the past. In deciding whether to do so, the board considers whether a watershed group can show “good cause” and a “clear demonstration of effort” to complete the projects, and that delays were “due to unforeseen circumstances.”

It is not clear whether Hermosa’s political difficulties would satisfy these criteria, and in the event that the board declines to grant a time-schedule order, each of the cities in the EWMP, not just Hermosa, could be subject to Clean Water Act fines. Hermosa City Attorney Mike Jenkins has previously said that the other cities could potentially sue Hermosa for fines they incurred over its failure to meet the plan’s mandates.

At a Feb. 4 meeting of EWMP members, Manhattan, Redondo, and Torrance staff said they were “not confident that Hermosa can site a project,” according to report from Nico de Anda-Scaia, assistant to the City Manager. The cities discussed addressing their runoff individually, even though doing so would likely be at least twice as costly, because they would have to forfeit the grant from the state.

Hermosa will consider the issue again at one of its two council meetings this month. (As of press time no specific date has yet been set, but de Anda-Scaia said in an email that staff were anticipating the issue to return on March 26.) At that meeting, the council could appoint a subcommittee to identify alternative sites in Hermosa, and could also approve a letter asking Redondo for permission to formally look at Francisca Avenue, the street just east of the AES power plant.

The Redondo City Council has not publicly discussed the infiltration project since November, when it appointed a subcommittee to work with Hermosa on the issue. At the time, comments from members of its council, who would have to approve any modifications to the project, offered a dim view of that possibility.

“It could be just as simple as, ‘Yeah, no. This is exactly where you’re going to go.’ Or it could be one of those things where it’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right: we want to buy out a lease that has 99 years on it in addition to the” $431,000 Redondo has already contributed to project design, Redondo Councilmember Laura Emdee said with evident sarcasm.

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