Talks flow for river project


NEWPORT BEACH — Veteran conservationists are seeking to revive long-languishing plans for a massive park near the mouth of the Santa Ana River.

Earlier this month, they formed a nonprofit organization to create the Orange Coast River Park, a 1,000-acre preserve that would stretch into Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

If successful, the group would restore damaged habitat to its natural state and provide recreational opportunities for nature-starved residents in parts of Costa Mesa. They would also put an end to a bureaucratic malaise that has stifled the project for more than 10 years.

“It’s one thing to talk about it — and we can collaborate — but it comes down to who can actually do the project,” said Jean Watt, one of the founders of the new nonprofit.

Originally conceived in the late 1990s by Watt and other local environmentalists, the plan would connect disjointed pieces of public property and lock them into a cohesive nature preserve. It would join Fairview Park in Costa Mesa to the Talbert Nature Preserve near 19th Street, and to Banning Ranch in Newport Beach. Then, it would stretch west into the Huntington Beach coastal wetlands.

Those are the wetlands restored by Gary Gorman and the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy. Gorman, who ran that group for around 25 years, left to form the Orange Coast River Park organization.

In Huntington, he had raised $18 million, rehabilitated 140 acres of natural habitat and built a wildlife care center on neglected stretches of land along Pacific Coast Highway.

Gorman, Watt and Dennis Baker, the former chairman of the Newport Bay Naturalists & Friends, are the three founding conservationists. They also recruited a local law student, Anna Vrska, to be their fourth incorporator. Gorman said he will most likely be president.

“They have a lot of practical experience,” said Nancy Gardner, a Newport Beach councilwoman who has helped plan the River Park and will continue to help as an informal advisor.

Gardner also advised the Friends of Harbors, Beaches & Parks, an Orange County environmental advocacy group that had been heading up the park project until now. That group, which Watt founded, created the park’s conceptual plan in 2002 and has convened the various land owners on a monthly basis.

Owners include Orange County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, the private owners of Banning Ranch and others.

“The problem was, with all the separate property owners, there wasn’t anybody who would grasp the reigns and run with it,” Gorman, the new acting president, said.

His group’s goal is to secure funds, restore and preserve the land, Gorman said. He and the others will try to acquire property through donations, conservation easements or by possibly buying property.

“Most of the landowners recognize that they’re not going to be able to do much with the property,” Gorman said.

His first project is to preserve around 1 to 2 acres for “mitigation,” the process by which a developer destroying natural habitat somewhere else can create a reserve to offset the damage.

An example is the habitat near the mouth of the Talbert Channel, where some areas are set aside for the California least tern and Belding’s Savannah sparrow.

“We just do it a piece of a time,” Gorman said.

While he has a specific mitigation project in mind, he didn’t want to reveal the details until it was farther along, he said.

If the deal is successful, the developer would pay to have the reserve maintained in perpetuity.

That’s the type of arrangement Orange Coast River Park will need to be sustainable.

Other funding would come through conservation grants and possibly private donations, Gorman said.

All the money and effort is needed to preserve the rare wetlands and to build other features such as walking paths, an interpretive center, ponds to naturally treat urban runoff, and signage.

Athletic fields would remain at Fairview Park, under Costa Mesa’s jurisdiction, Gorman said.

“We don’t intend to take over the land,” Watt said. “What we’re trying to do is work together to collectively get the money. The thing that has been lacking is the ability to actually get a grant and start a restoration project.”

One other project the group is eying is the rescue of about 100 acres from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Gorman says the Corps is neglecting the land, which includes a portion set aside for mitigation of least tern habitat. Orange Coast River Park is trying to get the Army Corps to transfer the property to one of the local governments.

That property is part of what biologists call an “ecological staircase”: The park starts at the shoreline, steps up to salt marshes, then to estuaries, then to freshwater marshes and then to “upland” areas including the bluffs. Each portion has plants and animals that thrive in those particular conditions.

“It’s the last remaining open space wetlands area along the coast that hasn’t been finished,” Watt said.