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Natural Perspectives: Good news for conservancy, wetlands

June 08, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray

Lou and I were delighted to read some good news last week. A news report in the Independent indicated that Huntington Beach is to going to see some more of its wetlands protected and probably restored ("Conservancy goes for last piece," June 1). The wetlands to the northeast of Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway are closer than ever before to full protection and restoration. While to some, the area doesn't have the glamour of the larger Bolsa Chica wetlands to the north, it is large enough to support wetland vegetation and wetland wildlife. It is good news indeed that it will be protected and not developed.

This area was once part of a vast marsh at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. Maps from the late 1800s show this marsh extending over 4,000 acres. Today about 150 acres remain. Most of it was filled and converted to residential tracts in the mid-20th century. But the parcel at PCH and Beach was spared that fate.

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The history of the site is convoluted. About 1960, the California Department of Transportation was planning to convert PCH into a freeway, so it used eminent domain to take possession of the adjacent real estate in a strip along the north side of PCH from Beach down to the Santa Ana River. The freeway concept died due to massive public resistance.

At that point, Caltrans might well have simply returned the land to its previous owner, the Mills Land and Water Co, but the state intervened again. In 1972, the people of California passed Proposition 20, the Coastal Initiative, which created the California Coastal Commission as well as a moratorium on coastal development. Then the California Coastal Act of 1976 gave force of law to efforts to protect remaining coastal resources such as salt marshes. Mills Land and Water, Caltrans, the Coastal Commission and the city of Huntington Beach were locked in lawsuits for decades thereafter.

Finally, Mills received approval to build on a portion of its holdings along Newland Street. The company then relinquished its claim on the Caltrans property.

So what is Caltrans to do with the site now that it no longer needs the property for a freeway? It will probably transfer title to the land to another state agency, the California State Coastal Conservancy.

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