Efforts to create a vast wetlands nature preserve at Ormond Beach could hinge on a crucial vote today by the board of the Metropolitan Water District, which will decide whether to sell a key parcel to the state Coastal Conservancy.
At issue is a 309-acre tract in south Oxnard that is co-owned by the city and the water district.
Oxnard officials have expressed support for selling much of the land, considered crucial in the state's plan to preserve hundreds of acres of wetlands along Ventura County's largest remaining tract of undeveloped coastline.
But preservationists are worried that the district board will reject its own staff's recommendation and vote against the sale.
"We're kind of holding our breath," said Janet Bridgers, founder and director of Earth-Alert, a local environmental group.
Their anxiety largely stems from a February vote by a district board committee to delay negotiations with the conservancy. Several members expressed concern that they hadn't fully evaluated how much space the water district would need for a possible seawater desalination facility at the site, said Adan Ortega, an agency spokesman.
But late Monday, the concerns of Bridgers and her fellow preservationists were eased after another district committee voted to authorize negotiations.
"I'm optimistic, but realistic," said Jonathan Ziv, a local activist who brought officials from the water district and the Coastal Conservancy together for a meeting last week.
This type of last-minute scrambling is nothing new for local environmentalists who for decades have fought for the preservation of Ormond Beach, home to several endangered seabirds. Several businesses have expressed interest in developing the site.
"In most of Southern California, there's development right up to the wetland," said Trish Chapman, acting regional manager for the conservancy. "There's a potential to make Ormond one of the richest ecosystems in the state."
The conservancy hopes to acquire and restore 900 acres of wetlands and grasslands, Chapman said. Using money from several parkland bond measures passed by California voters, the agency has spent more than $9 million to acquire a 265-acre tract at Ormond Beach from Southern California Edison and has offered to purchase as much of the 309 acres that the city and water district are willing to sell.
Preservationists envision Ormond Beach as a wildlife preserve with nature trails and a living laboratory for marine research that will attract nature lovers from throughout California. But they know that without a go-ahead from the water district, a key component of their plan is no longer feasible.
"It's right at the heart of this big dream we've all had of protecting Ormond," said Alan Sanders, of the local Sierra Club. "This is more than Oxnard. It's a big deal for everyone."
If the sale is approved, the water district will likely keep 20 acres for a possible desalination facility while Oxnard may hold onto another 20 acres for an extension of an existing paper mill, officials said.
While it's difficult to predict what the board will decide, officials said that the staff's recommendation and the committee's vote on Monday are a good sign.