Topanga Lagoon Restoration Moves Forward—Slowly

Annemarie DonkinBy Annemarie Donkin      March 19, 2021

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Topanga Lagoon Restoration Moves Forward—Slowly
PHOTO COURTESY OF RESOURCE CONSERVATION DISTRICT OF THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS (RCDSMM) Even after 20 years, the complex plan to create Lower Topanga State Park and restore the Topanga Lagoon, remains in early development stages with another public meeting in December.
The Coastal Commission, California State Parks and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) continue working on plans to restore the Topanga Lagoon. The fabled and storied Topanga Lagoon area west of Topanga Canyon Blvd. at PCH has been going through a major restoration project for the past 20 years to incorporate public access with the preservation of fish, birds, wildlife, Topanga Creek, and the Topanga Lagoon. Funded by the California State Coastal Conservancy, the general plan revision in 2012 identified several goals for the Lower Topanga Zone including restoring lower Topanga Lagoon without impacting the surf break; providing a natural gateway into Topanga State Park with minimally built structures; providing overnight accommodations and appropriate concessions; evaluating opportunities for restoring the Topanga Ranch Motel and develop interpretive and educational elements for visitors. (Author’s Note: Topanga Beach, just across PCH, is under the Department of Beaches and Harbors for Los Angeles County which is under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.) Indeed, in 2001 when California State Parks acquired the 1,653-acre property that includes the Reel Inn, the Topanga Ranch Motel, Wylie’s Bait & Tackle shop, about 70 homes and many other businesses, State Parks endeavored to turn it into a public area known as Lower Topanga State Park. Yet, according to the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC) who wrote in a 2007 letter to the editor of the Topanga Messenger, “When State Parks evicted the residents of Lower Topanga, it became the steward of the land and protector of the historic Woods’ House. Park rangers were to occupy the houses of evicted residents while an Interim Plan for Lower Topanga was drawn up with community input to govern the park until a new General Management Plan could be created. This General Plan would be crucial in managing a $43 million acquisition that involves not only the creation of a new state park, but the extremely expensive and complex restoration of the Topanga Lagoon—all while minimizing damage to the creek and other natural resources of the 1,653 acres.” That plan is still in its early stages and, meanwhile, State Park employees enjoy a beach-friendly lifestyle inside the fenced-off cabins of the Topanga Ranch Motel. According to a first-hand account of the current state of the Topanga Ranch Motel, “Behind the gate, you can see surfboards, a wetsuit drying, a bicycle, a hammock, potted plants, a barbecue, a string of paper lanterns, an astronaut sculpture that used to be on the hill, a hand-painted TOPANGA sign, a painted cow skull, empty Jack Daniel’s crates…” When asked about public safety during the planning phases, California State Parks wrote that they prioritize the safety of visitors and staff. “Procedures and policies are continually updated to support public safety within park units as well as surrounding communities,” State Parks wrote. “Additionally, State Parks Peace Officers (SPPOs) work closely with the state’s network of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to provide police protection services within state park units and surrounding communities. State Parks wrote that there is no camping at the lagoon. However, there is primitive camping within Topanga State Park and “currently, State Parks is not aware of homeless encampments at the lagoon.”
SOURCE: ESRI, MAXAR, GEOEYE, EARTHSTAR GEOGRAPHICS, CNES/AIRBUS DC, AEROGRID, IGN, AND THE GIS COMMUNITY; SOURCES: ESRI, GARMIN, INTERMAP, INCREMENT P CORP Map of Topanga Lagoon Restoration Planning Area
RCDSMM to the Rescue
According to the RCDSMM, “The Topanga Lagoon Restoration Project will enhance the ecological function, visitor use and accessibility of the lagoon in several ways. Environmentally, the lagoon will improve fish passage for southern steelhead trout; protect and enhance tidewater goby and bird habitat; increase wetland and transitional habitat; and improve water quality while accommodating for the projected increase in wave action and tidal levels due to sea level rise.”

To that end, State Parks called on the RCDSMM to design alternatives and engage the public to share their ideas and provide suggestions for the Lagoon and visitor-serving elements of the project.

“In 2019-2021 we will engage the community in a series of workshops, complete the Topanga Motel Condition Assessment and Conceptual Design for Rehabilitation and initiate the Topanga Lagoon Restoration Planning Project,” said the RCDSMM website. “We anticipate completing Phase 1 integrated planning, 30 percent conceptual design and initiate CEQA permitting for the selected design alternative by the start of 2022.”

The RCDSMM website says that “Anticipated visitor serving elements will be investigated in the project design process to include overnight accommodations, restoration of Ranch Motel structures, appropriate concessions, a visitor center with public restrooms, interpretive information, nature trails, parking, a picnic area, surf viewing and beach access. This planning and design will also include preserving both the cultural archaeological significance of the site and the surf break.”

Public Engagement Meeting
On Saturday, Feb. 27 about 87 people participated in an online public engagement meeting to learn, discuss, and determine which of four options they felt best served the State Park and the surrounding environment. The plans and options can be viewed on the RCDSMM website at rcdsmm.org.

After a brief presentation, meeting participants broke out into separate online rooms to discuss which of four design options appeared most acceptable.

Issues included preserving the fish and wildlife; public access including parking; a visitor’s center; a PCH traffic turnaround; the bridge span over the Lagoon; and whether the Topanga Ranch Motel should be preserved in its present location.

Debates and comments ranged from no restoration to a renovation that includes moving the motel and lifeguard headquarters further inland and providing a helipad on PCH for emergencies.

“The four alternatives were developed to reflect how the various priority elements (restoration, visitor services, emergency access, etc.) could potentially work,” wrote Rosi Dagit, Senior Conservation Biologist, RCDSMM.

“Note that Alternative 1, ‘No Project Managed Decline,’ will be evaluated. Once we finalize the 30 percent conceptual designs in the fall, the next step is to complete the CEQA/NEPA process during which the pros and cons of each alternative are weighed. Based on the results of that analysis, a preferred alternative can be identified to move to the next stage of design,” Dagit said.

Interested elected officials who attended the meeting included Assemblymember Richard Bloom of District 50 that includes Lower Topanga. “This is indeed a very important project for me,” Bloom said during the meeting. “This area could serve us better in so many ways. [There is] reason for optimism as the process goes through the steps along the way with the agencies and participants engaged in making it happen. I want to express my gratitude and support of the input from the public to provide better access, recreation opportunities and accommodations, and fix the degraded habitat [that went] from a 30-acre lagoon to one acre and eroding badly, and where we can reverse the damage of the past years.”

Another public engagement meeting will take place in December 2021 to gather further public input on the project.

For more information: The Topanga Lagoon Restoration Project website will post new information as it becomes available: rcdsmm.org/resources/topanga-lagoon-restoration/
Annemarie Donkin

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