By LILY TINOCO | Reporter
The California Coastal Commission approved a cease and desist order and a restoration plan on Wednesday, November 4, in response to damages and violations made by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in and adjacent to Topanga State Park.
In March 2019, LADWP began grading for a power pole replacement project in the Santa Monica Mountains, inland of the Pacific Palisades Highlands community, with plans to replace 220 wooden poles with 220 metal poles.
In the process, the utility crew damaged hundreds of federally listed endangered plants and extended 30 new roads off of the main trail, in addition to changing the width, said Coastal Commission enforcement analyst Logan Tillema during a virtual hearing. The violations start at the beginning of Temescal Ridge Trail and go north following the trail.
The unpermitted work destroyed approximately 183 Braunton’s milkvetch plants, a species listed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered. They removed a total of 2.72 acres of milkvetch habitat, included in that is 1.61 acres of federally listed critical habitat.
“183 might seem like a small number, but … ecologists found only 2,000 Braunton’s milkvetch in the area, meaning they removed 11% of the mature plants,” Tillema explained. “The species lives in only three general areas in the world, this place is one of them … making this a fairly significant disruption.”
In addition to damage to the Braunton’s milkvetch, the development affected coastal sage scrub and chaparral communities.
“Even aside from the milkvetch, the Santa Monica Mountains comprise the largest, most pristine and ecologically complex example of a Mediterranean ecosystem in coastal Southern California,” Tillema said. “One can only find this type of ecosystem in five localities in the world.”
Tillema said throughout the world, the ecosystem has suffered severe loss and degradation from human development, but an estimated 90% of the Santa Monica Mountain range is free from development.
Tillema added the development is inconsistent with the Coastal Act for its impacts to ESHA, its impacts to the water quality in the Santa Monica Bay watershed due to erosion from the unpermitted grading and its impacts to geological stability.
“The very existence of these violations causes continuous resource damage, therefore the commission has legal basis to issue the … restoration order,” he said.
Under the restoration plan, LADWP will be responsible for restoring nine acres within the Coastal Zone and approximately 17 acres of disturbed habitat outside of the Coastal Zone. This includes restoration of the milkvetch to ensure the species on the site is restored to its prior condition.
In addition to the on-site mitigations, a payment totaling $1.3 million will be made for in-lieu mitigations for the temporary loss of habitat that will and have occurred since the violation took place, and until the restoration is fully effective. An additional $575,000 payment will be made to the Violation Remediation Account.
LADWP Director of Power Transmission and Distribution Brian Wilbur addressed the commission and explained the project is “very essential” to ensure that LADWP can continue to provide reliable power to communities in the Palisades and essential in regard to wildfire safety.
LADWP Community Liaison Deborah Hong explained at a September Pacific Palisades Community Council meeting that the agency was working with multiple agencies that have land and jurisdiction in the area—including MRCA, Topanga State Park, the city of Los Angeles and CCC—to propose a plan that protects the plant species and allows construction to resume.
“It’s not a choice between the poles or protecting the plants—we have to do both,” Hong had said.
In a document shared at the Coastal Commission meeting, it was reported that LADWP “is committed to ongoing dialogue” and collaboration with resource agencies to develop mitigation that is proportional to the affects of species and habitats.
“It is crucial that we perform the work that’s needed with a focus on environmental stewardship,” Wilbur said. “This is why the relationship between us and the Coastal Commission is so important moving forward, the ability for us to work together to quickly come to a resolution is a great benefit to both of us.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.