It was hours into budget negotiations Monday when the governor’s finance director, Steve Peace, approached Assemblyman Tom Harman, a moderate Republican from Huntington Beach, with a question: What would it take to get him to vote for the budget?
“I said, ‘I need to get a commitment from you guys that you’re serious about the Bolsa Chica mesa,’ ” Harman said he replied.
Harman was referring to a 212-acre chunk of land overlooking the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach that is currently slated for homes. For at least 30 years, the area has been coveted by environmentalists eager to preserve some of California’s last remaining wetlands.
And now, the mesa could end up being an unexpected beneficiary of the state budget crisis because of the eleventh-hour negotiations between Harman and Peace.
Preserving the wetlands is still not a done deal, but Harman believes officials are closer than ever.
Buying the mesa was listed as a priority in the voter-approved Proposition 50, which authorized $3.44 billion for water-quality and coastal-restoration projects in November 2002. But no money has yet been allocated for the mesa, which overlooks the wetlands.
The mesa is owned by Hearthside Homes, which has agreed to sell it to the state. No price has been set, but the land’s value could be as much as $200 million.
Harman said language about the Bolsa Chica mesa wasn’t included in the budget or in a dozen trailer bills passed along with it. He said the language would be drafted later with cleanup legislation in September.
A key obstacle will be setting a price acceptable to Hearthside. Harman said Peace did not commit to a specific amount of money.
Harman said Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Peace gave their word that the sale would go through, along with the purchase of a separate, smaller section of the Bolsa Chica mesa where Indian burial artifacts had been found.
Peace could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The 1,200-acre Bolsa Chica wetlands have been the focus of a decades-long battle to prevent development of what was left after homes were built on nearly half of the wetlands.
Much of the undeveloped area has been a working oil field since World War II and is peppered with rigs and wells. The ground is contaminated with oil, heavy metals, PCBs and mercury.
The state bought 1,200 acres of the wetlands in 1997 and began a $100-million restoration project in June.
But the mesa remained a source of concern for environmentalists. They fear building homes on the land would cause pollution to flow into the sensitive wetlands.
“I feel great and kind of giddy,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman. “It’s wonderful news. This allows us to purchase most, if not all, of the Bolsa Chica mesa.”
Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.