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Famosa Slough Purchase Studied : Council Moves on Turning Marsh Into Wildlife Habitat

Times Staff Writer

The battle to control development on a 20-acre marsh called Famosa Slough turned in favor of environmentalists Wednesday when a San Diego City Council committee voted to explore the possibility of acquiring the property and turning it into a wetlands park.

In a committee room packed with supporters of the plan to preserve the area as a natural wildlife habitat, the Committee on Public Facilities and Recreation voted unanimously to develop a method to appraise the land and to explore funding sources.

The area is south of West Point Loma Boulevard, between Famosa Boulevard and Bob Street. The city already owns a 10-acre parcel of Famosa Channel north of the slough.

The latest vote comes after a series of moves by developer Terry Sheldon, who owns the property, that seemed certain to clear the way for a housing project on part of the environmentally sensitive slough. Sheldon has proposed building a 400-unit condominium-apartment complex on part of the land while preserving another portion as wildlife habitat.

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The slough has been the subject of controversy between developers and environmental groups since it was placed under the California Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction by a state Assembly committee in 1979. The Coastal Commission must approve all coastal development.

Since then, several state legislators have introduced bills to allow development of the slough. Neighbors and environmental groups have usually been able to join forces to defeat the measures.

But the most recent bill introduced by Jim Costa (D-Fresno) won handily despite strenuous objections by Lucy Killea (D-San Diego), who represents the area.

Sheldon also has had the past support of several City Council members, including Councilman Bill Cleator, a mayoral candidate. But on Wednesday, as a member of the Public Facilities and Recreation Committee, Cleator voted to support the environmentalists.

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The special legislation signed by Gov. George Deukmejian took the land out of Coastal Commission jurisdiction but also required that Sheldon work with the state Department of Fish and Game and the state Coastal Conservancy to define the boundaries of the part of the slough that is to be preserved as wetland.

Sheldon also agreed to pay half the costs for upgrading and maintaining the undeveloped portion of the marsh.

But environmental groups, such as Friends of Famosa Slough, have long maintained that any development on the marsh would further deplete California’s rapidly vanishing wetland areas and would threaten many species of wildlife, some of which--such as the least tern, a nesting bird--are on the endangered species list.

During testimony at the hearing, Joy Zedler, a San Diego State University ecologist, said the state has already lost nearly 75% of its coastal wetland habitat.

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“The value of the remaining habitat goes up because it is part of an ever-diminishing acreage,” Zedler said. “The area is linked to the San Diego River Channel and also to the Mission Bay habitat. It could be an enormous resource to San Diegans, as well as to species of bird and fish.”

Richard Ford, a marine biologist at SDSU, said the slough also has educational and research value and would be a good site for a natural wetland park.

The slough is one of the last remnants of False Bay, an extensive tideland that covered what is now Mission Bay Park.

Sheldon, who attended Wednesday’s committee hearing, said he would “consider any offers” if the city should decide to acquire the property.

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“If the city wants to buy the property instead of granting the development rights, it has to pay the market value,” he said. “If they go through the proper procedures and make an offer, I would certainly consider it. The city is very much aware that the property has value. I have property rights and those should be respected.”

Sheldon said that he has been willing to discuss his development plans with anyone who would sit down with him but said no environmental group has agreed to talk. He also accused some groups of trying to “sabotage and decrease the value” of the land by using welding torches to cut off flood gates, turning fire hydrants on to keep the water level up and dumping trash in the area.

“They have been advocating confiscation of the property,” Sheldon said. “I still own the property and this is still America.”

Jay Powell, a Sierra Club spokesman, said he was unaware of any attempts to decrease the land value and to trash the property.

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“We see the value of the property as a wetlands area, and we would not want to see that encroached,” Powell said. “All we’ve ever done is request permission to clean up the area, and we have been refused permission to go onto Sheldon’s private property.”

Powell added that environmental groups sought help from the city because the state legislation was “biased toward Sheldon’s (development) project.”

“Essentially the state legislation stripped away control of the property from the city and citizens,” Powell said. “The community has shown that it is still interested in preserving the area, and the city must take a lead and show interest in becoming a landowner.”

The legislation passed and signed by Deukmejian directs the Fish and Game Department and the Coastal Conservancy, in consultation with Sheldon, to delineate areas of development, to determine the number of upland acres needed to secure slopes around the slough, and to determine how much buffer area would be needed between developed land and wetland.

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Sheldon would also gain some development potential from the city-owned Famosa Channel, said Alyse Jacobson, the Coastal Conservancy project director. Under the legislation, Sheldon would still be able to work with the city to secure city-owned land abutting his property and fill in some wetland on his property, Jacobson said.

Jacobson said that, should the city decide to acquire the property, it would not be bound to uphold the plan.

“The legislation does not tie down the city in any way,” Jacobson said. “If their buying the property meant that the plan (for development) would not be implemented, then the entire area would be open to public access park and wetland and both agencies (the Conservancy and Fish and Game) would be happy about that.”


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