Conservancy goes for last piece

Caltrans is offloading the Newland Marsh. Local and state conservancies are working together to acquire it.

June 01, 2011|By Michael Miller,
  • The Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy is attempting to acquire the Newland Marsh, seen here with Beach Boulevard and the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa in the background. The marsh is the last stretch of wetlands in Huntington Beach that the conservancy doesn't manage. The property is owned by the California Department of Transportation and listed as excess land.
The Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy is attempting… (KENT TREPTOW, HB…)

Twenty-five years ago, Gordon Smith banded together with fellow environmentalists and set out to acquire and restore the remaining wetlands in Huntington Beach.

Now, Smith may be on the verge of knocking down the last barrier to his goal.

California recently began the process of unloading the Newland Marsh, a 44-acre property at Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway that comprises the final stretch of wetlands that Smith's nonprofit, Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, has yet to take over.

If that transaction is settled, the wetlands conservancy plans to remove a portion of the levee that separates the marsh from the ocean. A few swings from the wrecking ball, and the mission Smith has pursued without pay since 1985 will be complete.

"These wetlands seem to have a biological memory," said Smith, chairman of the wetlands conservancy's board of directors. "As soon as ocean water comes back in, the habitat restores itself in a matter of months."



An interested buyer

Since 1965, the Newland Marsh has been the property of the California Department of Transportation, which acquired the land by eminent domain from the Mills Land and Water Co. At the time, the state planned to use the land for a coastal freeway, but the project fell through, and Caltrans held onto the land.

Now, Caltrans is in the process of designating the marsh as excess land, which would mean the department no longer had a use for it. The California State Coastal Conservancy, which has helped the wetlands conservancy acquire land in the past, hopes to buy the property from Caltrans and pass it on to Smith's group for free, project manager Greg Gauthier said.

"We would categorize it as degraded wetlands right now, but it certainly could be restored to a high-quality, functioning habitat," he said.

Caltrans spokeswoman Tracey Lavelle said under the law, her department can sell the marsh to a public agency at the city, county, regional or state level. To her knowledge, only the coastal conservancy has expressed interest in buying it.

If the Newland Marsh changes hands smoothly from Caltrans to the wetlands conservancy, it will be a calm ending after several turbulent decades.

In 2004, the state and city settled with Mills Land and Water, which had sued Caltrans in the 1970s seeking to regain the land and sued the city for zoning it as wetlands. Under the agreement, Mills received the property occupied by the Cabrillo Mobile Home Park and a boatyard, while Caltrans took control of the wetlands.

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