Boardwalk is going nowhere

On a recent sunny afternoon, nature was buzzing around a section of the newly revitalized area of Fairview Park.

Birds and other wildlife were all around, sounding off in the trees, ponds and thick brush beyond the manicured walking trails of the park's Wetlands & Riparian Habitat, located in the 208-acre park's northwestern quadrant.

For some time now, Costa Mesa officials had hoped that a raised boardwalk would guide visitors through portions of the 37-acre wetlands area, giving them an up-close look at where the trees loom overhead and the brush is practically impenetrable.

But now, it seems that the proposed $1-million, 1,300-foot boardwalk with viewing decks has been deemed infeasible, and the idea essentially scrapped, according to city correspondence obtained by the Daily Pilot.

The City Council last year gave initial approval to a conceptual design for the boardwalk. In November, city officials met with five stakeholder agencies to discuss the plans, which would have been implemented under "minimally disruptive construction methods" and not required the removal of the large trees. Officials also cited the recreational and educational benefits of the boardwalk.

At the meeting were representatives from the county, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Orange County Transportation Authority, the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Officials said the level of outside involvement is understandable: The city needs the approval of some of the agencies for changes or additions to that part of the park. Other agencies have provided money, making them stakeholders.

In a letter sent to council members and top city administrators Dec. 12, Costa Mesa's public services director, Ernesto Munoz, wrote that FWS said the wetlands area is a conservation easement and, as such, could not support a boardwalk. The sentiment was then echoed by the other agencies.

"That pretty much stops that project," Munoz said in an interview Friday. "It tables it."

FWS spokeswoman Jane Hendron said in a follow-up interview this week that the easement precludes any improvements to it.

"The service took that and interpreted that to mean that a boardwalk would be considered an improvement, which would not be allowed under that conservation easement," she said.

"It's an unfortunate outcome," Munoz said of the decision, "because the wetlands is a beautiful project. Unfortunately, the only access that pedestrians will have is on the perimeter of the project."

The agencies proposed an alternative boardwalk that would have gone around the easement and over an existing 3-foot-wide trail, though city officials felt that route didn't work because it was too far from the restored wetlands, ponds and riparian channels. Furthermore, they said, even an elevated boardwalk there wouldn't have offered much of a vantage point.

Hendron, however, said FWS remains "open to any discussions the city wants to have regarding an alternative placement of a boardwalk."

Councilwoman Sandy Genis, a longtime advocate of Fairview Park and a council liaison for the park's citizens advisory committee, said she hopes the wetlands' existing trails will accommodate demand.

A people-filled boardwalk might have been too much for the wildlife there, Genis said.

"If you get too close to the ponds, whatever's there isn't going to be there," she said. "It's going to run away."

Munoz said the current climate right now at Fairview Park may have compelled the agencies to deny the boardwalk, a point echoed by Genis.

"There may be a desire to be a little more cautious when dealing with issues regarding Costa Mesa," she said.

Late last year, FWS ordered the removal of two trails on the other end of the park that could have harmed an endangered species. The trails were topped with decomposed granite sometime last summer, costing the city some $19,000 to clean up.

City officials have said the material was placed there without permission. No one has taken responsibility for the work.

A planned turnaround space in the park's southwestern quadrant, at the end of Pacific Avenue, has also stirred debate. Archaeological experts cited potential damage to the remnants of a historically significant Native American settlement nearby. The city later hired an archaeological firm to investigate the concerns of state officials who heard about the plans.

"I feel that under normal conditions," Munoz said, "[the agencies] probably would have worked with staff to put together a mitigation program to go forward with this [boardwalk], but given the notoriety that Fairview Park has received, they felt compelled to oppose it."

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