Delighting defenders of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, the Metropolitan Water District has transferred 25 acres of wetlands to a community group that has vigorously opposed building homes on the area next to Huntington Beach.
The transfer to the Bolsa Chica Land Trust marks the first time since 1973 that part of the wetlands has been placed in public trust, an MWD official said.
"We think it's a significant event," said N. Gregory Taylor, the agency's general counsel.
The move is being hailed by environmentalists as new encouragement that the largest unprotected coastal wetlands south of San Francisco will be saved from development.
"The Bolsa Chica Land Trust is thrilled to have been chosen by [MWD] to receive the land," said Flossie Horgan of Huntington Beach, the trust's acquisitions chairwoman.
But Koll official Lucy Dunn lambasted the water agency's choice of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.
"What are they thinking, giving it to this unqualified group?" Dunn said, labeling the trust "an anti-housing group."
The group's ultimate goal is to preserve the entire 1,700-acre Bolsa Chica area from the 3,300-home development that Koll Real Estate Group plans for the site.
Horgan's group now holds a piece of land in an area owned primarily by Koll, which the group has been battling for years.
The community group will hold the land in trust until any one of four government agencies agrees to ownership. If none of those state or federal agencies steps forward within a year, the land will remain with the land trust, Taylor said.
The water agency bought a swath of land at Bolsa Chica in 1974 as part of plans to build the nation's first nuclear-powered, ocean water desalination plan. But those plans later fell by the wayside, leaving the agency with 83 acres it did not need.
So in May, the MWD announced it would donate 25 acres of wetlands to the state Lands Commission. Another 45-acre piece of non-wetlands property would be sold to Shea Homes Inc. for $11.5 million, and a Koll subsidiary would acquire another small piece.
The state Lands Commission, however, was unable to immediately accept the land. The issue is on its December agenda, Taylor said.
So MWD transferred title to the land trust, at least temporarily, officials said.
Complex negotiations are continuing, meanwhile, that could result in state purchase and preservation of 880 acres of Koll-owned wetlands property at Bolsa Chica. Final word on those talks, which would shave 900 homes from the Koll development, is anticipated by mid-December.
Two key problems have complicated those talks: a funding shortfall and questions about whether the land has been contaminated by years of oil-field operations.
The 25-acre parcel transferred to the land trust has been tested and found free of contaminants, Taylor said.