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City, SDG&E; End 13-Year Dispute Over Wetlands : Accord Will Preserve Los Penasquitos Lagoon

Times Staff Writer

The city and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. have ended years of legal maneuvering over a 240-acre parcel of environmentally sensitive wetlands in Los Penasquitos Lagoon with an agreement to purchase the site that will save the city millions of dollars, it was announced Thursday.

Under the settlement, the state Coastal Conservancy will purchase 200 acres of the site from SDG&E; for $2.25 million. The city will pay SDG&E; $225,000 for 25 acres. SDG&E; will retain 15 acres of the site, which is just west of Interstate 5, south of Del Mar and adjacent to Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Penny Allen, chairwoman of the Coastal Conservancy, said the site eventually will be purchased from the conservancy by the state Department of Parks and Recreation and be preserved as a wetlands estuary.

“The conservancy has been concerned with preserving this particular site since 1976,” Allen said. “Our plan is to option the site until state parks has the money to buy it. But most importantly, this is the way cities and the state ought to be working together.”

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A state agency funded primarily with bond money, the conservancy awards grants for wetlands restoration projects and has assisted with enhancement efforts at San Dieguito and Buena Vista lagoons.

The conservancy formed the Los Penasquitos Lagoon Foundation in 1983 to come up with an improvement plan for the lagoon. One of the primary objectives of the plan was the purchase of the lagoon area, foundation chairwoman Joan Jackson said.

“The purchase from SDG&E; was a priority for us, so we are delighted with the settlement,” Jackson said. “The development issue in that area has always been highly volatile. The goal now is to restore the damage that has been done.”

San Diego City Councilman Bill Cleator, who negotiated with SDG&E; and the Coastal Conservancy on behalf of the city, said the settlement was a “triumph for the environment and the preservation of wetlands and estuaries in San Diego.”

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“We feel like we have preserved the gateway to San Diego,” Cleator said, speaking at a press conference he called to announce the settlement. It was held at the intersection of Carmel Valley Road and Torrey Pines Road, which overlooks the site.

Harry Compton, manager of government affairs at SDG&E;, said his agency was pleased with the settlement. Compton said that because of the site’s designation as a wetlands area, development plans the company considered came under careful scrutiny by the state Coastal Commission, which regulates all development along California’s coast.

“We had discussions with the Coastal Commission as to what kinds of development could fit on the property,” Compton said. “As more and more of it kept getting designated as wetlands, trying to get something through the Coastal Commission made our development plans look tougher and tougher. We are glad to be through with it.”

Compton said the money the utility makes from the settlement will be passed on to customers. He said the company has no specific plans for the 15-acre parcel it will retain. That parcel runs along Interstate 5 south of Carmel Valley Road.

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Environmentalists said Thursday’s settlement represents an important step in preserving the state’s dwindling wetland areas. Two birds which nest in the Los Penasquitos area, the least tern and the Belding’s savannah sparrow, are on the state endangered species list. Other birds that nest in the area are the great blue heron, the snowy egret, the brown pelican and the turkey vulture.

“It is a very rich area,” Jackson said. “Many species are totally reliant on the environment you find in the wetlands. In fact, it is rare to find a least tern in the area because much of its habitat has been destroyed.”

The dispute between the city and SDG&E; stems from a 1973 zoning decision that wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and ended with Thursday’s settlement.

In 1973, the city rezoned the 240-acre site from commercial-industrial to open space, a decision the utility contended left the land virtually worthless for development purposes.

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The city was ordered by a Superior Court jury in 1974 to pay SDG&E; $3 million, plus interest, for what the court ruled was inverse condemnation--depriving a landowner of land without actually taking the land. After a series of court hearings, the state Court of Appeal in 1979 reversed the lower court, ruling in the city’s favor, and that decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by SDG&E.;

The high court dismissed the ruling that SDG&E; had not exhausted state remedies for compensation. After that ruling, negotiations were begun. Under Thursday’s settlement, SDG&E; has agreed to drop the lawsuit.

In the meantime, the award money the city set aside as a contingency for settlement of the lawsuit has grown, with interest, to more than $5 million.

Cleator has proposed that the money be used to restore Los Penasquitos Lagoon and to purchase other open space or wetland areas, such as Famosa Slough in Loma Portal and the 32nd Street canyons in Southeast San Diego.

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Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose district includes the lagoon, said the new-found wealth will probably set off a round of squabbling among council members to get funding for projects in their own districts.

“I think it is important that we settle on one or two big projects so that the money is not parceled in such as way that it is worthless,” she said. “I’m going to argue that since the lagoon is in the 1st District, it should go to a 1st District project.”

Wolfsheimer has proposed that a regional park in the San Dieguito-Lake Hodges area be developed for water-related sports and activities.


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