Conservancy goes for last piece

Twenty-five years ago, Gordon Smith banded together with fellow environmentalists and set out to acquire and restore the remaining wetlands in Huntington Beach.

Now, Smith may be on the verge of knocking down the last barrier to his goal.

California recently began the process of unloading the Newland Marsh, a 44-acre property at Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway that comprises the final stretch of wetlands that Smith's nonprofit, Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, has yet to take over.

If that transaction is settled, the wetlands conservancy plans to remove a portion of the levee that separates the marsh from the ocean. A few swings from the wrecking ball, and the mission Smith has pursued without pay since 1985 will be complete.

"These wetlands seem to have a biological memory," said Smith, chairman of the wetlands conservancy's board of directors. "As soon as ocean water comes back in, the habitat restores itself in a matter of months."

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An interested buyer

Since 1965, the Newland Marsh has been the property of the California Department of Transportation, which acquired the land by eminent domain from the Mills Land and Water Co. At the time, the state planned to use the land for a coastal freeway, but the project fell through, and Caltrans held onto the land.

Now, Caltrans is in the process of designating the marsh as excess land, which would mean the department no longer had a use for it. The California State Coastal Conservancy, which has helped the wetlands conservancy acquire land in the past, hopes to buy the property from Caltrans and pass it on to Smith's group for free, project manager Greg Gauthier said.

"We would categorize it as degraded wetlands right now, but it certainly could be restored to a high-quality, functioning habitat," he said.

Caltrans spokeswoman Tracey Lavelle said under the law, her department can sell the marsh to a public agency at the city, county, regional or state level. To her knowledge, only the coastal conservancy has expressed interest in buying it.

If the Newland Marsh changes hands smoothly from Caltrans to the wetlands conservancy, it will be a calm ending after several turbulent decades.

In 2004, the state and city settled with Mills Land and Water, which had sued Caltrans in the 1970s seeking to regain the land and sued the city for zoning it as wetlands. Under the agreement, Mills received the property occupied by the Cabrillo Mobile Home Park and a boatyard, while Caltrans took control of the wetlands.

Almost immediately after, the state found itself in another legal battle with Action Boats, a retailer that had rented the boatyard and claimed it had a right to buy the property. Action Boats filed a lawsuit, which was resolved in 2008 with the land remaining in Caltrans' hands, Lavelle said.

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Finishing the job

Huntington Beach's coastline represents a rare oasis of preservation, according to coastal conservancy spokesman Dick Wayman.

While his group has no official numbers for how many wetlands remain in California, Wayman estimated that 90% or more have disappeared. Huntington Beach ranks among the top few cities in the state in terms of wetland acres preserved, a feat that Wayman attributes to Smith's nonprofit.

"We've been very pleased with the success they've had with protecting and preserving the wetlands of Huntington Beach, and we're very happy to call them a partner in that work," he said.

The wetlands conservancy owns and manages 140 acres of wetlands, which extend along Pacific Coast Highway between the AES Power Plant and the Santa Ana River. The property consists of three adjacent marshes — Magnolia, Brookhurst and Talbert— that are separated by Magnolia and Brookhurst streets.

Smith and his colleagues began by restoring the Talbert Marsh in 1989, followed by Brookhurst in 2009 and Magnolia in 2010 as the land became available. In each case, the conservancy reconnected the marshes to tidal inlets, letting in fish and other vital nutrients.

If the wetlands conservancy received the Newland Marsh, it would remain in existence to oversee and maintain the wetlands, but its original mission to acquire the coastal lands would be complete.

"That would pretty much wrap it up," Smith said.

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