State officials on Tuesday knocked down the final obstacle to public ownership of 265 acres at Ormond Beach as the heart of a vast wetlands nature preserve.
In a unanimous vote, the Public Works Board endorsed the state Coastal Conservancy's decision Thursday to buy the site from Southern California Edison for $9.7 million. The sale was considered troublesome because Edison refused to clean up any possible contamination on the site, which housed fuel tanks and a maze of underground pipes serving a power plant.
Had the board rejected the deal, it would have paved the way for a competing bidder, Occidental Petroleum Corp., to acquire the land for a $250-million energy facility.
Conservationists expressed jubilation and relief after the hourlong board meeting in Sacramento.
They contended Occidental's proposed liquefied natural gas terminal would have fouled a fragile environment already pocked with industrial blight.
"We got a lot of letters and calls and pleas from the people of Ventura County for the Coastal Conservancy to buy this property," said Peter Brand, a Coastal Conservancy official who oversees projects in Ventura County. "I'm really excited for them that we were able to do it."
The decision capped more than two decades of local efforts to save the marshy region on the fringe of Oxnard.
Home to a number of endangered seabirds, the Edison property is viewed as crucial in the state's plan to preserve about 4,000 acres of wetland stretching nine miles between Port Hueneme and Point Mugu. Negotiations are underway for the state purchase of an adjacent 300 acres owned by the city of Oxnard and the Metropolitan Water District.
All land acquisitions by the state are subject to approval by the Public Works Board, and this one, saddled with an unknown amount of waste, was particularly vexing.
"It was by no means a slam-dunk," Brand said.
The board was swayed, he said, by preliminary environmental studies indicating no severe environmental damage on the property. The conservancy has earmarked $1.5 million for a cleanup on the site, and acquired a $300,000 insurance policy covering claims that might arise from toxics there in the next 10 years.
Nevertheless, board members hesitated, according to Supervisor Kathy Long, who represented Ventura County at the hearing.
"They said it was unprecedented for the Public Works Board to buy properties like this with an unknown risk," she said.
"But they were willing to take an extra leap of good faith."
At a special meeting Friday, Ventura County supervisors passed a resolution of support for the purchase. They also criticized Edison for insisting the land be bought as-is.
An Edison spokesman has said the company was obligated to make the identical offer to both bidders, and that its pending deal with Occidental included no cleanup provision.
But Edison's critics did not accept that explanation, contending that the company was using a legal technicality to avoid the added expense.
"It's hard to call them a good corporate citizen," Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said. "They should step up to the plate and accept responsibility for problems they created."