Give-and-Take Ends Madrona Marsh Dispute

Times Staff Writer

In the quiet 43 acres of Madrona Marsh, the sunflowers have gone to seed. The red-wing blackbirds sport the brilliant crimson touches of breeding plumage. Soon the shy snipe will fly in. And replenishing fall rains are only weeks away.

The tranquil cycle of life in one of the last natural habitats for migrating birds in the South Bay appears likely to repeat itself for generations now.

The city's protracted efforts to gain title to the marsh, part of the largest undeveloped property in the city, succeeded this week with a complex agreement between developers, the city and three citizens' groups.

The agreement ended a thickening tangle of litigation that threatened to envelop the marsh and the surrounding Park Del Amo residential and commercial development in years of expensive court battles. "We're sick of the squabbling in the community and tired of the divisiveness," said Mayor Katy Geissert at Tuesday's council meeting at which the agreement was approved 6 to 0 with Councilman Bill Applegate abstaining.

Geissert and developer Ray Watt of Torrance Investment Co. were the key players in settling the dispute, according to City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer.

Under the agreement, everyone gave up something and everyone got something.

The city, which had demanded unclouded title to the marsh, located near Madrona Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard, received that from Torrance Investment Co. and Santa Fe Land Improvement Co., but had to agree to a list of "prohibited uses," which bar the city from developing the land for municipal or commercial buildings.

The developers got the go-ahead for residential development plans on land near the marsh that the city had been holding hostage.

But they gave up a clause in the previous deed they had given to the city that was at the heart of the dispute. The provision would have enabled the developers to regain title to the property in case the city reneged on a commitment to keep the land as open space.

In 1983, the developers agreed to dedicate 34.4 acres of wetlands and sell an additional 8.5 acres to the city for a preserve in exchange for being allowed to construct up to 1,482 residential units and 850,000 square feet of commercial space.

But in 1985, when the deed for the marsh was turned over to the city, it contained the reversion clause. The developers maintained that if the marsh dried up, the city might use the property for municipal buildings or sell it to another developer.

City officials asserted that their intention was to keep the property for open space and that the clause was not needed. The environmentalists argued that the developers could focus on some minor use by the city of a portion of the marsh and take back the valuable property for commercial development.

Unexpected Controversy

Watt said in an interview after the meeting that he had never expected that the clause would become controversial because similar provisions have long been used by railroads when deeding property to municipalities.

In the agreement, the clause was replaced with the list of prohibited uses and a requirement that the city undertake condemnation proceedings and compensate the developers if the city ever reverses course and decides to use the land for a prohibited use.

In the rest of the settlement, the city, which had sued the developers, agreed to drop its suit. The developers dropped a countersuit and agreed to end legal action against Friends of Madrona Marsh, a local environmental group, and two homeowners' organizations, the Torrance Heights Civic Assn. and the Marble Estates Homeowners Assn. The developers had accused the citizens' groups of inducing the city to file its suit.

At the meeting Tuesday, acrimony was replaced by declarations of praise.

"We've all won," said Councilman Dan Walker. He said the city's gain was the marsh itself--"$50 million worth of someone else's property."

Mayor Thanks Watt

Geissert said she wanted to thank Watt publicly.

"There would have been no settlement unless Ray Watt had picked up the phone and said, 'This is ridiculous. Let's talk,' " Geissert said, adding that Watt had repeatedly pushed for a settlement when negotiations bogged down.

Watt confirmed in a brief interview that he had been the one to initiate the settlement process.

Georgean W. Griswold, president of the Friends of Madrona Marsh, choked with emotion when she told the council that "Madrona Marsh will be preserved for all future generations."

Geissert heralded the "Martians," as those who worked for the marsh since 1971 became known, singling out for praise Grace Lear, affectionately dubbed "Marsh Momma," president of the Friends of Madrona Marsh in the mid-1970s before moving to Houston, and Betty Shaw, a later Friends president, who died this year of cancer.

Geissert said some permanent memorial to Shaw should become a part of nature exhibits and walks that are eventually planned for the marsh. The city now is planning landscaping improvements to the marsh perimeter.

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