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Coastal Comm'n Tells Loynes/South Landowner To Restore Vegetation, Restore Land & Put Impermeable Landfill Cap On Bulldozer-Cleared Parcel

(Nov. 19, 2010) -- As the result of an appeal pursued by multiple LB residents (listed in full below) and the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, the El Dorado Audubon Society and Our Town -- Long Beach, the CA Coastal Commission at its Nov. 19 meeting ordered plant restoration, land restoration and an impermeable landfill cap placed on the Loynes/South parcel (south of Loynes Dr. between Studebaker Rd. and the Mobile Home Estates).

Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

The hearing stemmed from a March 2009 land clearing with bulldozers and without required Coastal permits by landowner Sean Hitchcock (2H construction). The action angered wetlands advocates and a number of neighbors, amplified by City Hall's less than swift response and the reluctance of city staff and Planning Commission to flatly direct restoration of the land to its previous condition.

( March 2009 photo following land clearing; trucked-in asphalt pile was removed within a few days).

The Coastal Commission's action went beyond some aspects of restoration recommended by Coastal Commission staff; as amended on motion by Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan, the Commissioners voted unanimously to direct the land owner to:

  • Contour the land to facilitate the creation of vernal pools that by most accounts were on the land prior to the illegal grading,

  • Ensure that an impermeable cap be placed over the methane producing part of the land to avoid harmful gas ever being released again and to avoid the possible seepage of water into the dump,

  • Replant the land with alkaline meadow and other native plants, with a robust monitoring plan to make sure those plants take hold and thrive.

Requiring an impermeable landfill cap could allow some water to collect on the parcel...which would arguably be more consistent with wetlands than uplands. carried live video of the proceedings on our front page ( and has a link below to that video and video.

Photo credit: Gordana Kajer

To view the video, click here (The hearing item begins at 2:19:15 into the video).

To hear the audio, click here

In March 2009, Mr. Hitchcock, a LB resident and Signal Hill officed contractor who'd recently acquired the roughly nine acre parcel from a Tom Dean-related LLC, responded to city weed abatement directive by using bulldozers which removed vegetation, changed the topography and disturbed the top layer of an old landfill causing elevated methane levels.

Mr. Hitchcock then sought and obtained a Coastal Commission Emergency Permit allowing use of imported fill dirt to create a six-inch thick dirt cap to cover exposed trash with a condition requiring a follow-up Coastal Permit from LB City Hall. A City Hall Zoning Administrator approved a Local Coastal Development Permit with no requirement to restore the land to its prior condition; a number of residents appealed that decision to LB's non-elected Planning Commission; the Planning Commission denied the appeals but added a Special Condition stating: "The applicant shall comply with a remediation plan to be prepared by staff and submitted to the Planning Commission for consideration within 90 days."

City Hall's response to the land clearing led the residents and environmental groups to appeal to the Coastal Commission, which scheduled a de novo (anew) hearing at its Nov. 19 meeting in Santa Monica at the Annenberg Community Beach House.

Photo credit: Gordana Kajer

Landowner Sean Hitchcock attended the proceedings backed by legal counsel and a retained expert/consultant.

The appellants in the Coastal Commission proceeding were the Los Cerritos Wetlands Trust (Elizabeth Lambe, Executive Director); Thomas Marchese; Heather Altman; Mary Suttie; David Robertson; El Dorado Audubon Society (Mary Parsell); and Our Town -- Long Beach (Joan Hawley McGrath, Sandie Van Horn, Pat Towner, Cindy Crawford, Tarin Olsen, Kerrie Aley, Allan Songer & Brenda McMillan).

Photo credit: Gordana Kajer

They were joined in their appeal by two Coastal Commissioners themselves: Mary Shallenberger and Sara Wan.

At the Coastal Commission hearing, Commissioner Ross Mirkarimi [a San Francisco City/County Supervisor] wondered aloud what actions by LB City Hall may have led the landowner to do what he did. He said it appeared that what had taken place was "another incident of government asking for forgiveness rather than permission" and asked if any representatives of the City of Long Beach, including a City Attorney representatives, were present. None were.

Commissioner Mirkarimi invited Mr. Hitchcock and his counsel to come to the microphone, and asked Mr. Hitchcock if the City of Long Beach had required him to have a permit for what was done. Mr. Hitchcock replied:

"There is no City permit required for the clearing work as done, and the City frankly didn't know that there was one needed and neither did I, and that was found out and I stepped up and took care of whatever needed to be taken care of afterwards, and the method used to clear is the method used to clear more than acre of land."

Landowner Sean Hitchcock. Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Later the proceeding, Commissioner Mirkarimi said:

I am not sold by the sort of fuzzy way this has sort of been illustrated to us, that a wink and a nod maybe by somebody in the City of Long Beach, maybe not, is what motivated the applicant for moving forward. If that is the case, sir [directing himself to Mr. Hitchcock], then you have been greatly disserviced then I think by the City of Long Beach, and that person should be exposed, quite frankly.

And if that's the case then I would seriously ratchet this up to the higher authorities for an investigation. This is the wrong way to go and this is what really taints confidence in government altogether...

Coastal Commissioner Ross Mirkarimi. Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

For quick audio access to this exchange, click here.

The item opened with a presentation by Coastal Commission staff (for staff's materials, click here), followed by Attorney Tamar Stein for Mr. Hitchcock. Ms. Stein said evidence in the record doesn't support characterizing the land as wetlands, and regulatory officials had indicated that they don't support letting water collect above the landfill area.

Tamar Stein, Esq. attorney for landowner Sean Hitchcock.
Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Mr. Homrighausen disputed characterization of the property as wetlands.

Art Homrighausen, LSA Associates testifying for Mr. Hitchcock
Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

The appellants then spoke. Tarin Olsen presented multiple photographs, including wildlife and before and after photographs. She was accompanied by biologist Brenda McMillan who stressed the relationship between the Loynes-South parcel and adjoining wetlands.

Appellant Tarin Olsen and biologist Brenda McMillan, Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Pat Towner, President of University Park Estates Homeowners Association, urged the Commission to restore, recontour and revegetate the parcel.

Appellant Pat Towner. Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

In a voice at times approaching tears, 30-year neighboring resident Joan Hawley McGrath testified that she was awakened "by the crying of the birds. I went to my front window and saw the birds circling and heard the birds circling and crying and screaming...I saw the animals running. The little critters. The rabbits; the squirrels; it was a massacre..." She ended her testimony, a bit short of breath, urging the Commission to "do right by us."

Appellant Joan Hawley McGrath. Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Appellant Tom Marchese said he'd stood in front of the machinery and was told by workers on scene that what was taking place had been cleared with the City and if he [Marchese] didn't leave, they'd have him arrested.

Appellant Tom Marchese. Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust Exec. Dir. Elizabeth Lambe cited a report on the parcel by a UCLA professor, and added that the parcel meets the parameter for wetlands in the Coastal Act.

Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust Exec. Dir. Elizabeth Lambe.
Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust attorney Mel Nutter. Coastal Comm'n webcast screen save

Attorney Mel Nutter wrapped up testimony for the appellants.

Public testimony then followed...all of it in support of the appellants.

Photo credit: Gordana Kajer

Some Commissioners indicated that they found persuasive photographs taken by the appellants, showing bulldozers and uprooted trees, which contrasted with a description by representative of the landowner of the action as weed abatement. (One Commissioner called the "weed abatement" description an insult to the Commission). (Right: March 2009 photo)

Following the hearing, the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust said in a mass emailing:

Three cheers to everyone who took a day off work to attend the hearing, to all those who testified so effectively, to our attorney Mel Nutter for making such a great presentation on our behalf, and to our esteemed biological consultant, Travis Longcore, whose thorough research and sound recommendations helped get us the outcome we were hoping for.

Heather Altman, an appellant who also publishes, wrote following the hearing:

...[T]he Coastal Commissioners did something that the City of Long Beach never really seemed able to do. They unequivocally, angrily and unanimously sent Mr. Hitchcock a message: you screwed up and there are consequences...

He [Hitchcock] sailed right on through the City of Long Beach Zoning hearing with nary a scratch. He did, though, hit a speed bump at the Planning Commission when the commissioners directed the City to prepare a restoration plan. However, the City pushed the matter up to the CCC, sans plan. Bullet dodged.

Fortunately...Coastal Commission staff made recommendations for a restoration and monitoring plan, and the Commissioners added to them...

...All in all, it was a good day, at least for the environmentalists who recognized this for the egregious action it was, and just wouldn't let it drop.

And to the Coastal Commissioners who upheld the Coastal Act and sent a clear message that this illegal activity isn't okay? Thank you.

Landowner Hitchcock's plans in the wake of the Coastal Commision decision aren't immediately known. Coastal Commission actions can be challenged in court.

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