City OK’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center Expansion

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center received approval from the Laguna Beach City Council on Nov. 13 to broaden the scope of its expansion, including the addition of a 2,150-square-foot, two-story building it plans to share with the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter.

Peter Chang, CEO of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, said the organization’s leadership originally decided to expand the facility in two phases but recently decided construction and fundraising would be more efficient if the entire project was completed in one pass.

The shared use building will house office space for animal control officers, showers, telecommunications, storage, a cattery, and also serve as an evacuation area for animals at the Animal Center in the event Laguna Canyon Creek floods the area.

“This is the biggest expansion that the organization has ever had to go through and it very much plays well with the renewed emphasis to be much more than a rehab center for animals,” Chang said. “We want to be a beacon for education and a beacon for research not just for Orange County, but the greater scientific community around the world.”

City Manager Christa Johnson said Laguna Beach will benefit considerably from the planned shared used building even though it will be built at no cost to taxpayers.

“This proposed structure recognizes the successful partnership between the city and the Marine Mammal Center to build a joint campus for our shared mission of animal care, rescue, rehabilitation, education, and research,” Johnson said.

Besides the shared use building, the center asked for permission to build two additional 2,900-gallon animal rehabilitation pools, bringing the total of new pools to three. These pools allow veterinary staff to quarantine and treat animals with infectious diseases.

“We cannot put those with other patients because of the nature of the diseases,” Chang said.

The center also plans to add an educational multipurpose room and associated office space to better accommodate schools who want to bring their students to learn about marine mammals. Staffers currently have to turn school groups away because the center can only accommodate one program at a time.

The revised expansion plan also calls for the addition of a necropsy room that will allow staffers to better understand why a marine mammal died on the beach or wasn’t able to recover in the center’s rehabilitation pools.

“We want to contribute to the science and can provide more insight into what’s going on in those ocean waters,” Chang said.

After receiving feedback from the City Council in January, the center agreed to redesign its new water treatment system within a new building that will mimic the barn architecture of the existing facility. As the second largest water user in Laguna Beach, the center feels strongly that it needs to do its part to conserve as much water as it can to be environmentally sustainable, Chang said.

Staffers currently have to constantly clean rehabilitation pools, so the marine mammals aren’t swimming in their own feces. During the center’s busiest months, this can happen seven to eight times a day. Chang expects daily water usage to drop from 15,000 gallons to about 2,000 gallons once it starts recycling most of the water used on site.

“We’re a conservation organization, and this is the right thing to do, so that was really our main drive,” he said.

Although the center has some funds available through endowments, it still needs to launch a capital campaign to cover the majority of the construction costs. Chang said he expects it will be at least 10 months before the center is able to break ground on the expansion.

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