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Bolsa Chica Land Nearly Set for Sale

The Huntington Beach school district that owns the 15-acre parcel no longer needs it. A state wildlife board says it would bid $12.3million.

September 09, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Setting the stage for selling a crucial piece of property to the state for inclusion in the environmentally sensitive Bolsa Chica Mesa, the Ocean View School District has declared 15 acres of the mesa it owns as surplus property.

The school district, which has owned the land since 1966, had anticipated building an elementary school to accommodate a large development proposed for the mesa area.

But the need for a school evaporated as the proposed development dwindled from 11,000 homes to 5,500 to 1,200 and finally to fewer than 400, said James Tarwater, superintendent of the district in Huntington Beach that serves pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The state Wildlife Conservation Board has said it would pay the district $12.3 million for the property.

The district's board voted 3 to 1 at its meeting Tuesday to take the first step toward selling the property by approving a resolution that officially designates the land as surplus.

Tarwater said proceeds from the sale could be used only for capital improvements, such as campus renovations.

After giving public notice of the declaration, the district will begin taking bids.

Tarwater does not anticipate a flood of potential buyers.

"My estimation is there will not be a significant bidder [other than the wildlife board] because it's conservation land," he said. "You eliminate a lot of groups or developers that would want 15 acres on a bluff" because it can't be developed, he said.

The state agency will use funds from Proposition 50, passed by voters in 2002, which made $750 million available for conservation efforts statewide. It has also offered California Coastal Communities and its development partner Hearthside Homes $65 million for 103 acres of mesa property.

Both deals, however, hinge on California Coastal Commission approval of the developer's plan to build 379 homes on the remaining land it owns, in an area known as the upper bench.

The Coastal Commission staff had recommended that Hearthside's proposal be rejected when it came before the panel at its August meeting, because of concerns over public access to the wetlands, effect on water quality and relocation of environmentally sensitive southern tar plants.

Hearthside has since revised its plans.

"We've made some changes in response to some of the Coastal Commission's objections," said Hearthside CEO Raymond Pacini.

And now, "I believe our plan is more in compliance with the Coastal Act than what the commission recommended in 2000."

Pacini has said, however, that it is unlikely the company would agree to the sale of its 103 acres if it were unable to develop the adjacent upper bench.

But environmentalists note that the 103 acres -- which surround the school site -- are earmarked for open space and not much else.

"It's $65 million for a piece of property that has been very, very difficult to develop," said Shirley Dettloff, a board member of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a longtime advocate for restoration.

The mesa's grassland and eucalyptus trees provide foraging grounds for raptors and habitat for reptiles and other animals, Dettloff said.

The mesa, overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, will be added to the 1,200 acres of publicly owned wetlands the state is restoring.

"When both of those sales go through, all of the lower bench of the Bolsa Chica Mesa will have been saved," Dettloff said.

"Environmentalists who have fought for years will know that that land will be open space and a habitat area for birds and wildlife forever."

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