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Do the Ballona Deal, Now

August 15, 2003

The Audubon Society volunteers who traipsed into the Ballona Wetlands this month, binoculars and notepads in hand, counted 36 native and migrating bird species and nearly 400 individual birds swooping among the cattails and wildflowers. The great blue herons and the red-necked phalaropes are doing fine so long as nearby bulldozers leave them alone. But for these birds to survive long-term, along with the plants and insects that sustain them, humans in Sacramento need to act to restore and preserve this special place.

Southland conservationists have tried for years to engineer the public purchase of about 500 acres of wetlands acres next to the office buildings, condos and shops rising at Playa Vista. They want to clean up the tossed soda cans, seed native plants and remove the soil dumped when Marina del Rey was dredged so this saltwater marsh can once again naturally filter the area's oily storm runoff, control flooding and, of course, nourish the birds, frogs and insects there.

Two years ago, Playa Capital Co. agreed to sell the tract. Last year, voters passed Proposition 50, providing a sizable sum that could go toward buying Ballona for state parkland. The sticking point has been the price tag; the state doesn't want to pay too much for scrubland that decades of farming and urbanization have degraded, and Playa Capital won't accept too little.

With so few remaining wetlands, there are no "comps" for Ballona. Estimates for this one-of-a-kind parcel have ranged wildly, from $10 million to as much as $500 million. To ensure that taxpayers don't get fleeced, state purchases require an independent property appraisal and a passel of bureaucratic signoffs.

In the last two years, Playa Capital, conservation groups and the state have appraised the property six times. But in Southern California's superheated real estate market, that molasses-like process rendered one appraisal after another outdated before a check could be cut.

A seventh -- and all parties agree -- final appraisal is now ready, reportedly pegging the tract's value at $140 million to $150 million. But state General Services Department officials and the Wildlife Conservation Board must still approve the price for the deal to happen. Playa Capital's written commitment to sell expires Sept. 17, but the turmoil surrounding the statewide recall election against Gov. Gray Davis could easily distract state officials and derail the worthy purchase. The purchase would not come out of the state's general fund and would have no effect on the huge fiscal shortfall.

Davis could make a permanent contribution to Southern California's natural resources by hurrying officials to call the necessary meetings and do the paperwork in time.

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