|(May 17, 2017) -- As seen LIVE on LBREPORT.com, following a five hour hearing, the City Council voted 6-2 (Uranga and Gonzalez dissenting, Pearce absent but stating in writing she would have voted "no") on May 16 to advance a proposed "Belmont Beach Aquatics Center" to an uncertain future in which the CA Coastal Commission could change the proposed facility's size and height in ways that may differ significantly from what City Hall has shown and told LB residents and taxpayers.
[Scroll down for further.]
The Council upheld a March 2 decision by LB's non-elected (Mayor chosen/Council approved) Planning Commission that certified an Environmental Impact Report, approved a Site Plan Review, Conditional Use Permit, Standards Variance and Local Coastal Development Permit entitlements to construct and operate the Belmont Beach and Aquatic Center. Four groups of LB taxpayers filed appeals to the City Council: Gordana Kajer; Jeff Miller and Melinda Cotton; Joe Weinstein, Ann Cantrell and Citizens About Responsible Planning (CARP); and Anna Christensen for the Long Beach Area Peace Network.
By denying appeals by the four appellant groups (who announced they all support each others' positions), the Council majority has effectively invited one or more of the appellants to file a court challenge to the EIR (time window is within 30 days) and also turned the project's future -- including its design, size and height -- over to the Coastal Commission whose LB office staff has signaled in writing (letter dated May 11, coverage here) that it doesn't share City Hall's reasoning on the effects of predicted sea level rise or the facility's proposed height (more than twice as high as allowed under the City's Local Coastal Program [Coastal Comm'n approved LB-area coastal area zoning.])
A turning point in the hearing came when Councilman Roberto Uranga, who is a member of the Coastal Commission (recently reappointed by a state Senate committee to a Coastal Commission new four year term) said bluntly that he doubts the Coastal Commission will approve the project in its current form. Councilman Uranga opined that the Coastal Comm'n will likely insist on possibly significant changes including to the city-sought height, because (Uranga said) the city sought height could set a precedent for future projects along the coast statewide. Councilman Uranga also said that under the Coastal Act, the Aquatics Center is a "new project" and not a "replacement project," disputing a linchpin position in city staff's reasoning; if the proposed Aquatics Center (which is larger and has additional amenities) is deemed a "replacement" (for the former Belmont Plaza pool) and not a "new" project, it could more easily be built at the same location under the Coastal Act.
In response to the Coastal Commission staff's May 11 letter, city staff disclosed at the hearing that it has provided a written a response to Commission staff (letter dated May 16 at this link.) The City's May 16 letter offered its reasoning on issues raised by the Coastal Commission staff and effectively puts City Hall and Coastal Commission local staff at odds on issues that they may or may not resolve in discussions that won't be public. At some point, with or without agreement between the City and Coastal Commission staff, the project will reaches the decision making Coastal Commission itself (on which Uranga is a member.) The Commission can accept or reject its staff's recommendations and may or may not require changes to the proposed Aquatic Center project.
Building the facility along the shore would let the city tap Tidelands funds (instead of using General Fund or other revenue) but since Tidelands revenue is currently insufficient for the full cost, city staff has acknowledged it's now seeking other sources of taxpayer funds. [As LBREPORT.com was first to report, in Jan. 2017 Mayor Garcia quietly told U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- before the project had come to LB's Planning Comm'n or City Council for decisions -- that the City wants $60 million in federal taxpayer funds.]
The Council hearing began at 5:38 p.m, with city staff, followed by two architects hired by city staff, followed by another presentation by city management (which raised economic issues and asserted economic benefits that staff acknowledged weren't part of issues before the Council or the EIR appeals. City staff's presentation in total took a bit over an hour, to 6:42 p.m.
At 6:44 p.m., the four appellant groups were given the floor and told they had 15 minutes each for three appellants, with 18 for one (Ann Cantrell on behalf of appellant CARP (Citizens About Responsible Planning.) Appellant Jeff Miller led off by saying the appellants want the City of LB to become an Aquatics capital...and to do so requires opposing the project which will consume large amounts of Tidelands funds that won't be funded if the Aquatics Center is approved...and said it would better serve the aquatics community if built at another Long Beach location. Mr. Miller said changes in traffic (a lane-shrinking "road diet" on Ocean Blvd. implemented by city staff with the approval of Councilwoman Price) had resulted in fewer lanes of traffic and required a new traffic study. He said using only one "story pole" (approved by the Planning Commission over his objections) didn't show the public the full size of the proposed structure.
CARP President Dr. Joe Weinstein began by stating that the group is now a 501(c)(4) organization, a social welfare organization that he pointedly noted has the ability to engage in some political activities [as long as these are not its primary activity.] Dr. Weinstein urged the Council not to blindly approve putting a new project on a site approved 59 years ago. Ann Cantrell followed on behalf of CARP, charging that the EIR failed to adequately study traffic impacts, mentioned having some kind of shuttle for special event parking but with no plan or planned location, said the EIR had rejected alternative sites for trivial reasons. She said Mayor Garcia had expressed support for using the lot next to the convention center for a George Lucas museum, a site that could serve as the site of the Aquatics Center. Ms. Cantrell said that contrary to city artist conceptions and text, the facility's proposed ETFE plastic roof would not be transparent because CA solar law required imprinting the panels with solar dots that reduced sunlight. She said ETRE isn't recommended for use o or near the beach, best for cold climates, and will require hefty air condition to counter greenhouse effect heating. She said an ETFE roof at Vikings Stadium became notorious for killing birds (that crashed into it.) She said using an ETFE roof near the seashore risks having seashore birds peck holes in the roof and cited the website text of a firm that sells/installs ETFE roofs that cautions against inviting this risk. Ms. Cantrell urged retaining the park/open space now at the area and finding a better location for the Aquatics Center.
Ann Christensen for the Long Beach Peace Action Network said the proposed facility fails to provide social and racial equity now required by law, and showed a video of Aquatics Olympics Champ Simone Manuel. She alleged the proposal violates principles of environmental justice and discrimination prohibited by CEQA, in an area that had a previous history of discrimination and today has what she called remaining inequities. Shrink it, move it or lose it, she said.
Gordana Kajer cited multiple statutory and administrative grounds in itemizing EIR errors, said that under city's staff's reasoning, everything above the pool's main deck would remain above water with sea level rise...but the facility's lower level and parking area would end up below the water line...and urged recirculating the EIR.
City staff was given nearly 15 minutes to respond to what the appellants said without the appellants having an opportunity to respond further. (Staff would also receive additional time to respond to Council questions with no response/information from the appellants.)
Assistant City Manager Tom Modica said staff believes the city's EIR is solid. He said a staff study indicated that the alternative sites would have savings of only 3-5% of total costs [no source document cited] and aid a city engineering firm had found an "innovative approach" for addressing sea level rise consistent with the city's current movement of sand to nourish sand on the beaches. Mr. Modica said ETFE does stand up in marine environments and can withstand marine birds. Development Services Director Bodek said city staff had spoken with operators of an Anaheim RR facility that used an ETFE roof and found no bird issues, and found a Boca Raton, FL facility (at the seashore) which also reported no bird-pecking problems..
The Mayor invited public comments (three minutes each, which he later shortened to two minutes each.) 15 speakers spoke in support of denying the appeals/supporting the shoreline location), and 15 speakers spoke in favor of supporting the appeals/finding another location/recirculating EIR. Public testimony lasted roughly an hour.
Among those speaking in support of the Aquatics Center shoreline location was an aide to Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell (D, Long Beach), who read a statement into the record by the Assemblyman urging the Council to approve the shoreline project. The Assemblyman's stance put him at odds with testimony by the Surfrider Foundation's Long Beach branch, with whom O'Donnell is frequently allied, which urged the Council not to support the shoreline project and to find another location for the Aquatics Center that doesn't consuming beach area.
Speakers opposing the shoreline site included Corliss Lee, an ELB (5th district) resident and a new member of CARP's governing board, Ms. Lee said the shoreline area location is fraught with risks, and if the Council approve it, this would lead her to question Councilmembers' basic business sense. She said CARP seeks responsible planning, and urged the Council to act responsibly instead of forcing her and others to do so.
Debbie McCormick, Lucy Johnson, representatives of LB's Grunions Masters Swim Team and other members of the LB's aquatics community (including a 13 year old swimmer) urged the Council to deny the appeals and proceed with the shoreline project. Several cited the former Belmont Pool's historical significance to them..
Former Councilwoman Rae Gabelich (2004-2012) said that since the shoreline site would require $40-$60 million in additional funding, the council should use that amount to build multiple pools across the city for residents of Council districts without them. Ms. Gabelich noted that LBCC is about to design and build a new Aquatics Center [already funded with voter approved bond money] and urged the City to pursue joint uses of the facility.
Public comment ended at 9:04 p.m. Councilwoman Price made a motion to overrule the appeals and approve various entitlements sought by city staff; Councilman Austin seconded.
Councilwoman Price engaged in a colloquy with city staff, posing leading questions (inviting yes/no answers) to city staff, framed to elicit supportive responses. ([Paraphrased example] Price: Did staff hear anything from appellants that causes staff to change its recommendations? Staff response: No.) Councilwoman Price asked Assistant City Manager Modica if city staff had looked into some type of city joint use or shared use of the LBCC Aquatics facility. Mr. Modica indicated city reps had spoken with LBCC staff who indicated the new facility was planned to basically serve LBCC students and LBCC staff had no plans at this point for joint uses.
[On March 19, 2017, LBREPORT.com reported that the LBCC Master Plan project list for projects that would be funded by a November 2016 debt-bond ballot stated in pertinent part: "...(xv) Seek opportunities for joint use of facilities with Long Beach Unified School District, the City of Long Beach and other public agencies." We also reported on on April 2, 2017 that at the LBCC Board of Trustees' March 2017 meeting, Trustee Sunny Zia requested an LBCC management report on the pros/cons of possible joint uses. [It's currently uncertain if such a report will appear on the LBCC Board of Trustees May 30 agenda.]
Councilwoman Price urged her Council colleagues to rely on city staff. She cited staff's figure stated earlier in the hearing that alternative locations would only save 3-5% of the project cost [no source cited by staff]. Price called the amount negligible for a project of this size. [This would amount to roughly $3.5-$6 million if the project cost were about $120 million.]
Price acknowledged that the proposed project might undergo changes on review by the Coastal Commission and said she looks forward to what she described as the next phase in the process in which city staff engages in what she called a meaningful dialogue with Coastal Commission staff to move the project forward. [The "next phase" of the process only involves the Coastal Commission because the city seeks to build the Aquatics Center at the same shoreline location as the former [pre-Coastal Act-era] Belmont Plaza Pool which was demolished for seismic deficiencies. It's currently unclear on what types of changes the Coastal Commission may insist for the proposed project.]
Mayor Garcia spoke immediately after Councilwoman Price, said he supports the project and called it a project for residents across the city to enjoy. Garcia said he believes in "thinking big" and noted that the Olympics will come to Long Beach in 2024 or 2028. [L.A.'s Olympic Organizing Committee doesn't plan to use LB's planned Aquatics Center for any Olympic events.] Garcia said he supports building "the best pool in the United States" and said the proposed shoreline facility would advance Coastal Act policies by bringing people to the coast. He urged the Council to approve city staff's recommendations so the project could advance to the Coastal Commission and then return for further action by the Council.
Councilman Uranga, a member of the Coastal Commission, said the Aquatics Center is a new project under the Coastal Act, not a replacement project, as contended by city staff. Uranga indicated that he doubts the Coastal Comm'n will approve the project in its current form, and opined that the Coastal Commission will likely insist on what could be significant changes to the project, especially to the facility's proposed height (roughly double the height now allowed in LB's Coastal Zone), approval of which Uranga said could affect future projects along the coast statewide. "There is a project here, itís just not this project, and because of that I don't think I can support the project as it is and I will have to support the appeal of this case," Councilman Uranga said.
The City Clerk read into the record a letter from 2nd dist. Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce (unable to attend due to family emergency).citing reasons why she would be voting "no" if she could have been present. Councilwoman Pearce wrote in part: "As the only other Councilmember whose district has access to Tidelands funds, I do not take this decision lightly. I have a number of serious concerns about the planning process up to this point, the BBAC's [Belmont Beach Aquatic Center] compliance with local and statewide (Coastal Commission) regulations, and the projectís future impacts on our environment...I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our public dollars are spent wisely for the collective good of Long Beach. I have concerns about building a $103 million pool facility on unstable sand in an area subject to SLR and erosion when we could be building this project for significantly less money in an alternative location. Both the savings and Tidelands dollars that will no longer be tied up as a result of the unfunded BBAC [Belmont Beach Aquatic Center] should go towards doing everything in our power to adapt to the very same sea-level rise which threatens this facility."
Vice Mayor (9th dist. Councilman) Rex Richardson asked city staff if the Aquatic Center was a citywide project; staff replied yes...to which Richardson asked if any public outreach/discussion on the project had been held in NLB and other parts of the city; staff acknowledged there had been none, prompting Richardson to question how the project could be fairly called a citywide project. Richardson said he was no longer willing to accept having Tidelands funds used to benefit beachfront areas without input for how the projects could serve citywide needs. He said a "better value" project requires the city to take steps to ensure it brings benefits citywide.
At one point, Richardson suggested it might be appropriate to prevent the use of sums from other sources (General Fund, Measure A or elsewhere) for the Belmont Shore project. He also explicitly called for changing the project's name to a "Long Beach" project not Belmont-shore area project.
Vice Mayor Richardson ultimately indicated he would vote "yes" to advance city staff's recommendations to the Coastal Commission only after city staff assured him publicly that the project would ultimately return to the Council for final approval, at which time Richardson (and other Councilmembers) would be able to discuss broader public outreach and involvement with other parts of the city (beyond SE LB.)
Richardson's position on the need for additional public outreach was echoed by Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, who indicated before the she wasn't sure how she'd vote (she ultimately voted against city staff's position.).
Councilwoman Stacy Mungo said she was excited about the iconic project and voiced her support for city staff's position. ,p>Councilman Daryl Supernaw engaged in a colloquy with city staff that focused on the roughly $4.2 million in Tidelands funds already expended for design of the Aquatics Center. Staff indicated that if the Council didn't advance the project to the Coastal Commission, it would have begin new design work. [Supernaw didn't say prior to the vote, but ultimately voted to support, city staff's positions.]
Central LB's 6th district Councilman Dee Andrews said nothing and ultimately voted to support city staff's position.
During Council discussion, Assistant City Attorney Mais acknowledged that the Council had the option of direct staffing to make changes to the proposed project, but indicated that this could effectively require a new EIR.
Assistant City Manager Modica indicated that if the Council certified the EIR for the current proposed project, it wouldn't necessarily preclude using the EIR for a smaller project.
At about 10:40 p.m., Mayor Garcia called for the vote. It was: Yes: Price, Supernaw, Mungo, Andrews, Austin, Richardson. No: Gonzalez, Uranga. Absent; Pearce [indicating opposition by letter above.]
Developing. Further to follow.
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