August 2, 2008

Home Depot Pullout Won’t End East Long Beach Project

By Karen Robes Meeks and Joe Segura, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif.

Aug. 2--LONG BEACH -- Home Depot has pulled the plug on plans to build a home-design center in East Long Beach, but plans to develop the land are still moving forward.

The decision, in part, is based on the company's move to achieve "capital efficiency," during a period of economic woes, a spokeswoman told the Press-Telegram on Friday.

"The Home Depot is currently not moving forward with its plans to build at the proposed Long Beach site," said Kathryn Gallagher, senior manager of communication for Home Depot's western division.

However, the developer -- Tom Dean of Studebaker, LB LLC -- made it clear that he is still planning to build on the 16.5 acres east of Studebaker Road at Loynes Drive.

"We look forward to working with local officials and the community in providing a successful project on the site that the majority of Long Beach residents agree needs to be improved," said Mike Murchison, spokesman for the developer.

A "successful project" may include a Home Depot presence, if its economic condition improves, Murchison said.

The disclosure comes on the heels of the developer's settlement with neighborhood and environmental groups that objected to the $21.5-million plans for a Home Depot design center.

The Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust announced Thursday that developer Dean had settled with the trust and the University Park Estates Neighborhood Association, agreeing to settle for an undisclosed amount in legal

fees, dismiss his appeal of a judge's ruling to decertify the environmental impact report approved by the City Council and vacate all permit approvals.

That settlement had put to rest a possible lengthy appeal process, following a judge's ruling earlier this year that the project environmental impact report had several flaws that required revisions.

Dean and his attorneys could not be reached Thursday, but on Friday his spokesman said that the developer will "address the additional information required by the court in order to be consistent with the court's ruling."

In a February hearing in Norwalk, Superior Court Judge John A. Torribio repeatedly insisted that the project proponents needed to make a "good-faith effort" at providing adequate reviews of various impacts -- as defined by the California Environmental Quality Act.

The judge said the city, as lead agency for the EIR review, needed to conduct a biological study to determine whether the site is potentially wetlands.

In their filings, attorneys Jan Chatten-Brown and Douglas P. Carstens, representing the project's opponents, agreed with the judge:

"Because the site has significant amounts of dirt remaining in its original, unvegetated state from when the site was salt marsh wetlands, the city's failure to conduct a proper wetlands delineation (study) was erroneous."

The attorneys added that the project proponents' own biologists found a "wide variety of wildlife on the project site including: butterflies; mammals, including rabbits, squirrels and raccoons; amphibians, including the Pacific tree frog; reptiles; and birds, including numerous birds associated with wetlands such as osprey, the snowy egret and great-blue and black-crowned herons and gulls."

Project attorney Robert Pontelle didn't comment on the judge's ruling at the time.

However, during the Norwalk hearing, Pontelle -- representing both Dean and Home Depot in the lawsuit -- insisted there was no need for additional study of the proposed project site, contending the area had been paved over with asphalt for decades, and that dirt is exposed only on wear-and-tear patches.

"I believe there's more dirt than the city is letting on," Torribio countered.

The state Coastal Act restricts most development on wetlands, and environmentalists -- before Thursday's announcement -- said they might begin efforts to include portions of the Home Depot site in restoration of the Los Cerritos Wetlands.

The judge also wants the EIR to use better data on the review of the possible impacts projected traffic would have on air quality.

He emphasized that he was not impressed that the study used monitoring data from a station in North Long Beach instead of one nearby.

The city argued that the nearby station data only gauged air quality for the past two years, while the North Long Beach station's statistics were more extensive.

The judge countered the nearby station's data should have been used.

Since submitting his project in August 2003, Dean's vision for a design center with 12,000 square feet of retail, 6,000 square feet of restaurant space and the project's centerpiece -- a 140,000-square-foot Home Depot with a garden center -- has been controversial.

Critics contend that the project would have negative impacts on the Los Cerritos Wetlands and on traffic.

Despite opponents' concerns, the council voted 6-3 in favor of certifying the EIR in 2006. Councilman Gary DeLong, whose 3rd District encompasses the project, said at the time that Home Depot would create good jobs, bring in tax revenue and improve the property. He also said at the time that his constituents supported the project.

On Friday, Assistant City Manager Suzanne Frick said she met with the project applicants, and they expressed a desire to work on EIR issues raised by the judge.

Murchison said he is not sure how long it might take to complete the EIR revisions, but said the developer would like to see it completed as soon as possible.

"We're pushing as quickly as we can," he said, referring to cost factors linked to efforts to develop the site over a five-year span. "That's a very long time."

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