Now Open for Business

Photo by Jeanne RiceBy the time you read this, the county's Harbors, Beaches and Parks (HBP) Commission will have met on June 1 to draft a response to the Weekly's recent revelation that one-third of the county's 27,000 acres of parkland lack any deed restrictions against development.

The results of their meeting weren't available by press time, but whatever the response, it'll be about two years late for the 211-acre Talbert nature preserve in Costa Mesa. Included in a new county report outlining the issue was news that use restrictions on the Talbert deeds expired in 1998 without action or comment by the county (see "Bad Deeds Go Unpunished," April 28). With the deed expired, county residents have lost their best legal weapon in the battle to preserve the preserve: by a simple majority vote, the five-member Board of Supervisors may now approve any project on the site.

The preserve is a quiet place, stretching along the Santa Ana River. It begins just north of the salt marshes at Pacific Coast Highway and runs north, past the Victoria Street Bridge to Fairview Regional Park. It is home to 93 species of birds, as well as a wide variety of frogs, reptiles and mammals, including coyotes. Its air is thick with dust and pollen; immense estates look down upon it from the Costa Mesa bluffs. It includes saltwater wetlands, empty fields covered with grasses and head-high mustard plants, and a large pond full of ducks. Swarms of insects make standing on either the paved trail that runs along the river or the dirt paths that meander around the pond treacherous.

The land originally belonged to the Banning Family; Phineas Banning first developed Los Angeles Harbor and brought trains to Southern California. Eventually the state Department of Transportation took over the land and later sold it to the county when Ronald Reagan was governor, according to HBP staffer Eric Jessen. The first parcel transferred ownership in April 1973 and the last four years later. The purchase price for the 140-acre parcel south of Victoria alone was $3,467,500—50 percent of fair market value—which the county paid in installments.

"The land was originally used for itinerant farming, stabling—characteristic uses for those days," said Jessen. "The county used to get permit requests to grow gourds and stable horses there."

In 1995, according to Jessen, the California Coastal Conservancy gave the county $2 million for wetland restoration in the Talbert portion north of the Victoria Street Bridge. As a condition of that grant, the state placed a "conservation easement" over the entire Talbert preserve. But again, that restriction expires after 25 years, in 2020.

For the moment, the preserve's future looks good. The county is planning to incorporate Talbert into a larger park, "part of a series of park habitats created along the route of the Santa Ana River starting at the Pacific Ocean and reaching miles inland," states the current HBP resource-management plan for Talbert. "This park is an element of that progression, or stair step, of habitat type which moves upstream along the river from wetlands to drier habitats."

This is a great plan, but—like its predecessor—it lacks legal permanence. And it's unlikely the HBP Commission will ever move to add permanent use restrictions to the park deeds—like Talbert—that lack them. In its March report, the commission complained that "deed restrictions . . . may hinder the ability to accommodate future legitimate park-related or non-park-related needs. Based on future circumstances either unknown or not contemplated today, the effect of unilateral use restrictions could limit the options of a future Board of Supervisors."

That, of course, would be the whole point of restrictions. No private developer and landowner in the county has to worry about their land deeds expiring. It's time the residents of Orange County had the same assurance for their parks.


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