Still got questions for Long Beach government officials about the city-land-for-wetlands swap they’ve crafted with local businessman Tom Dean as the long-debated deal travels toward its latest vote before the City Council tonight?

Fourth District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell suggests you ask yourself a question, instead: Are you for the wetlands—or against them?

“Tuesday night you have the chance to say you love the wetlands—or that you don’t love the wetlands,” O’Donnell says. “If you truly love the wetlands, support this [land exchange]. If not, walk away from them.”

The black-and-whiteness of O’Donnell’s assessment perhaps reveals his weariness after two years of a black-and-bluing process beset by complications and controversy since The District Weekly revealed its in-secret negotiations in November 2008. Yet the fact remains that some of the very environmental groups that have been trying for decades to put the wetlands in public hands have become the transaction’s leading opponents—beginning with the fact that the deal doesn’t guarantee the wetlands will be protected.

Meanwhile, the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board is poised to allot $6.18 million to acquire approximately 100 acres of adjacent wetlands in Seal Beach—much less money than the value of the 11-acre, port-adjacent Public Service Yard property that Long Beach is about to trade to Dean for 33.7 acres of wetlands. It’s an indication that Long Beach might suffer a huge loss when it eventually tries to sell the land to the state.

“That’s a million-dollar question,” says Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, a consortium of local government officials (Long Beach is represented by O’Donnell and Third District councilmember Gary DeLong) and environmental groups.

Actually, the question is worth many millions. Although there are no up-to-date appraisals of either the Public Service Yard or Dean’s wetlands acreage—city negotiator Mike Conway opted to use comparisons and Dean won’t let appraisers on his property—a review of reports from city staff and City Auditor Laura Doud show that the Public Service Yard may be worth between $10 million and $15 million. The city was already offered $15 million for it a few years ago.

Additionally, the city will incur costs for demolition of existing structures ($1.4 million), the relocation of a historic railroad depot ($500,000) and environmental cleanup of the land ($2.85 million), as well as costs to relocate its operations to another facility or build a new one. Doud summed up all that as “serious risks.”

O’Donnell says the risks are worth it—and, in effect, a litmus test that separates those who love the wetlands from those who would lose them.

“There is some risk in this, no doubt,” he says. “There is risk in every real estate agreement. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take for the wetlands.”

But it’s not the risk of all that money that most concerns wetlands-lover Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust (LCWLT). It’s that terms of the city’s swap with Dean don’t even guarantee the ultimate reward.

 “There is no provision in this deal that guarantees the land will remain as wetlands or open space,” says Lambe. “I appreciate the good will, I really do, but good intentions are not enough to support this deal.”

The LCWLT has been arguing that the deal include a deed restriction or a conservation easement—legal language that would prevent some future city council from breaking the non-binding promise this council is making. Long Beach is facing an estimated $18-million budget shortfall this year and even-bigger shortfalls in the next two years.

“The state is prohibited from paying more than fair market value,” says Lambe. “If the city is facing huge financial problems and cannot sell these wetlands to the state, a future city council may be tempted to sell them off to someone else.”

O’Donnell counters that official restrictions on development would reduce its fair-market value, and thus reduce what the state would pay the city to purchase the land.

The 100 acres of Seal Beach wetlands—former Hellman Ranch property—has a conservation easement, part of a deal that was struck when land along northern Seal Beach Blvd. was developed with homes and the Seal Beach City Hall and Police Department. According to Faustinos of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, that’s part of the reason the pending purchase price is $6.18 million.

But that explanation only brings up an even broader question from Lambe.

“Why is the City Long Beach even involving itself as a middleman in this transaction?” she asks. “Why doesn’t Tom Dean just deal directly with the state? Why do Long Beach taxpayers have to be put at risk at all?”

O’Donnell contends that leaving the Los Cerritos Wetlands in Dean’s hands makes them vulnerable to unpredictable economic forces.

“He could entitle the land, he could plan a business park,” says O’Donnell.

But development of the land is already constrained by Southeast Area Development Improvement Plan (SEADIP) zoning parameters as well as the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission. That’s pretty much why the Los Cerritos Wetlands haven’t been developed yet.

“Well, Dean could drive bulldozers onto the land,” O’Donnell says, reviving memories of the guerilla methods used by contractor Sean Hitchcock in March 2009, when he shredded and leveled plants and animals on a piece of wetlands-area property he had just acquired from Dean to build a soccer field without so much as a permit.

“He could,” Lambe allows. “But it would be illegal and he would suffer the consequences.”

Lambe points out that some of the destruction that O’Donnell fears could be perfectly legal because of the lax terms of the land swap.

“Because Dean hasn’t permitted any appraisals or delineation studies, we don’t actually know exactly what is wetlands and what isn’t,” she says. “Because Dean gets to keep the oil and mineral rights, we don’t how much of the land has to be set aside for oil extraction. We have no clarity about what sort of roads might be needed to do that work. That’s the big problem—the whole deal is so ambiguous.”

This back-and-forthing has been going on for nearly two years now, and although Tuesday night’s city council vote is supposed to be the final vote and it looks like a done deal, well, we’ve heard that before. Although O’Donnell may not particularly want to hear them again, Lambe and other environmentalists will be at City Hall to keep asking questions.

“Patrick (O’Donnell) can conclude that this deal is worth it, with all its uncertainties, but we don’t think it is,” says Lambe. “We not going to bless it without any protection.”

O’Donnell is holding to his line, too.

“I’m standing up for the wetlands,” he says. “I’m not going to walk away from this.”

[Note: Councilman Gary DeLong, whose third district includes the Los Cerritos Wetlands and who is Long Beach’s representative on the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, did not return a phone call to his office requesting comment.]

  1. Dwight K Snider
    May 17, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Here we go again! Something really stinks in Long Beach. The wetlands swap deal has stunk from the beginning and still has a rancid limburger cheese smell to it. Now the old “love it or leave it” ploy is being trotted out in an attempt to finalize the deal. What is next…the accusing of opponents of the wetlands swap deal of being communists? Who keeps “cutting the cheese” at City Hall? The stench is unbearable.

    • LBCityGirl
      May 17, 2010 at 10:38 pm

      wow, Dwight…usually you have these lovely quotes to share… I think I like this side of you more!

  2. LBMike
    May 18, 2010 at 7:41 am

    “You gotta know when to hold em, know when to fold em. Know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money while you’re sitting at the table, there will be plenty of time for counting when the dealing is done!”

    Hey Patrick, it’s easy to gamble when your are using taxpayer money and assets. This is simple stuff. All you have to do is ask yourself…. “would I do this deal if it was my money”?

    And Pat, if your answer is still Yes, regretfully you’ve got to be stupid or in bed with Mr. DeLong and his developer pals. Time will tell… and, being a gambling man myself – my money tells me that now that you and DeLong are termed out, unless you can count five reasonable and honest council persons with guts to tell the DeLong gang NO, the Wet Lands are going to cost our city dearly and make a few “smart guys” richer!

    Pat, it’s way past time to walk away from this BS deal…. it’s time to run!

    May 18, 2010 at 8:31 am


  4. For a better Long Beach
    May 18, 2010 at 8:46 am


  5. inthehole
    May 18, 2010 at 9:21 am

    What a phony O’Donnell is. How ridiculous to follow through with this. Thank goodness it will be tied up in court for longer than I will be alive.

  6. Joe Mack
    June 3, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Wet lands are particularly ugly swamps full of horrible black insects and mosquitoes.
    I find that mother-nature can not (on it’s own) create comfort. At least, not for a civilized man.


  1. June 22, 2010 at 10:03 pm

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