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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

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Pumping up SLO's Montana de Oro: Plan would grow state park by 65 percent

http://www.sanluisobispo.com/183/story/429660.html

8/4/2008

Plan nears reality to add 5,500 acres and build trail from Los Osos to Avila Beach.

A proposal to add several small parcels and three large properties — the Andre parcel, the Hibberd Preserve and the Avila Ranch — could add some 5,500 acres to Montaña de Oro State Park.

By David Sneed

State Parks is working with three conservation groups to finalize a series of land acquisitions that would add about 5,500 acres to Montaña de Oro State Park and allow the construction of a 20-mile segment of the California Coastal Trail, linking Los Osos with Avila Beach. The additions would come in the form of three large parcels and 10 smaller ones scattered throughout the Irish Hills, a rugged mountain range west of San Luis Obispo. If successful, the acquisition effort would cause Montaña de Oro to grow by about 65 percent, for a total of about 14,000 acres.

“That would be a very substantial addition and would make Montaña de Oro one of the largest state parks,” said Nick Franco, the department’s superintendent of the San Luis Obispo County district.

The planned acquisitions involve property that stretches about five and a half miles north and west from Avila Beach. They are:

• The 2,400-acre Avila Ranch centered on Wild Cherry Canyon between Avila Beach and Port San Luis. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. owns the property, but the utility leased the development rights on the land for 198 years. About 160 years remain on the lease, and the deal would involve purchasing those leases for $24 million.

• The 1,500-acre Hibberd Preserve owned by the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. The group is willing to donate the land to State Parks.

• A parcel of 730 acres owned by the Andre family, which would be purchased for $1.825 million. The family has also agreed to place a conservation easement on other property in the area.

• Ten parcels that make up 1,279 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy, which would be purchased for $3.842 million.

The first test of the acquisition plan will come Friday, when the state Public Works Board will meet in the State Capitol at 10 a. m. to consider spending nearly $5.7 million to purchase the Andre and Nature Conservancy properties.

The money for these two purchases would come from a state account of $13 million earmarked specifically for land acquisitions in the Irish Hills, said David Wrightsman, Irish Hills project manager with State Parks.

This money was allocated as part of Proposition 12, the voter- approved Parks Bond Act of 2000.

This leaves about $7 million available for the second round of purchases, most notably the Avila Ranch leases.

The American Land Conservancy could make up the remainder of the $24 million purchase price from other state sources as well as a private fundraising effort currently under way.

The state Coastal Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Board, Caltrans and other state agencies are interested in participating in the Irish Hills project, Wrightsman said.

He expects to take his funding requests to these agencies later this year.

“Altogether we should have the money we need to make the entire purchase,” he said. “If any coastal land deserves protection, this is it.”

Kara Blakeslee agrees that there is enough public and private money available to complete the deal. She is the Avila Ranch project manager with the American Land Conservancy.

While the competition for conservation dollars is fierce, she thinks the Irish Hills project is a rare opportunity to protect coastal lands.

She has already lined up funding from the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments and the state Transportation Commission and a donation of $150,000 from the Hind Foundation.

“I’m pretty confident we can do it,” she said. “The opportunity to make all of this work is here and now.”

Blakeslee is the wife of Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, RSan Luis Obispo, and a former employee of American Land Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy. Now a financial planner in San Luis Obispo, she is volunteering one day a week to work on the Avila Ranch project.

This is not the first time conservationists have tried to purchase the development rights to the Avila Ranch, also known as the Leucadia Ranch.

A previous attempt by The Nature Conservancy to buy the rights from Nipomo developer Denis Sullivan and two partners collapsed in 2003.

Neither The Nature Conservancy nor Sullivan would comment on the current preservation effort.

The least-complicated piece of this conservation puzzle is the Hibberd Preserve. It has been owned by the Land Conservancy since 1999. The group is donating the parcel but is looking for a donation of $50,000 to $80,000 to defray its costs.

“It’s really always been our intention and understanding that it would become part of the state park,” said Bob Hill, the group’s conservation director. “We’re looking make a gift to the state, but we’d like to recover some of the property taxes and other expenses we’ve incurred over the years.”

If the current effort is successful, the deals could be finalized by the end of the year and the property transferred to State Parks by springtime, Franco said. He envisions open-space preservation; hiking and low-impact camping would be the main uses of the new parkland.

Much of the land is interlaced with trails for off-road vehicles and dirt roads that are ready-made for hiking.

A 20-mile segment of the California Coastal Trail linking the back country of Montaña de Oro with Avila Beach would be laid out and constructed later, Franco said.

The lower elevation of the property is rolling oak woodlands, while the upper elevations are more rugged and covered with chaparral. The highest point is a peak called Bald Knob at 1,286 feet.

Anytime property is added to State Parks, a question can arise of whether the department can afford to manage and maintain the new land.

For example, Harmony Headlands State Park near Harmony has not opened to the public since its acquisition in 2003 because the department does not have the $1 million it needs to create a parking lot and other needed amenities.

It would be much easier to open the new Montaña de Oro lands, Franco said. The property already has a ready-made trail system.

“We would have to create a staging area without opening the park to cars, but those are not high-cost items,” Franco said.

Another possibility would be to charge a day-use fee to enter the new parkland.

The state Legislature prefers that parks pay for themselves with fees, but a decision like that would be made only after the property is acquired.

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http://www.spwb.ca.gov/Agendas/2008/August8AgendawAnalysis.doc

STAFF ANALYSIS—1

Department of General Services

Department of Parks and Recreation

Irish Hills-Montana de Oro

San Luis Obispo County

Action requested

The requested action will authorize acquisition.

Scope Description

This project is within scope. This project authorizes the acquisition of approximately 5,909 acres as an addition to Montana de Oro State Park and would provide trail connectivity from the park to Avila Beach. This requested action will authorize acquisition of 2,009.2 acres of land (12 legal parcels) that are owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Andre family, and is the first of a two phase acquisition. The second phase, consisting of two parcels, the Hibberd Preserve (1,500 acres) and the Avila Ranch (2,400 acres), will come before the Board for site selection in the near future. Once all the acquisitions have been completed, DPR will be able to fulfill its plans for the development of a coastal trail from Montana de Oro State Park to the town of Avila, as well as the preservation of rare and precious undisturbed coastal lands in San Luis Obispo County.

This project will fulfill five of seven DPR’s acquisition guidelines by providing for expanded outdoor recreation opportunities, significant cultural resources properties, cultural landscapes, in-holdings and adjacent properties, and trail connections and corridor acquisitions. Once acquired, a hiking trail will traverse the properties being acquired in the Irish Hills, as well as trail linkages through existing public lands (BLM). While some of the parcels are not directly contiguous with Montana de Oro State Park, once all acquisitions are completed and the necessary easements obtained, the public will be able to hike from Montana de Oro State Park to the town of Avila and the ocean.

Funding and Cost Verification

This project is within cost. The total cost of the project, for both acquisition phases, is estimated to be $13,000,000 (not including the additional $17,825,000 in non-state funding to be used for the second phase). A total of $13,000,000 from the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Coastal Protection Bond Fund (Proposition 12) for the purchase of parcels located within the Irish Hills near Montana de Oro State Park is available, of which $5,787,000 will be used for the first acquisition phase (see below), in accordance with legislative intent. The remainder of the appropriation will be used, in combination with other public and private funding to fund the second acquisition phase.

$13,000,000 total authorized project costs

$13,000,000 total estimated project costs

$ 60,000 project costs previously allocated: DGS staff costs

$12,940,000 project costs to be allocated: $5,727,000 for the first acquisition phase and $7,213,000 for the second acquisition phase.

CEQA

A Notice of Exemption was filed with the State Clearinghouse on April 10, 2008. The 35‑day litigation period expired on May 15, 2008.

Project Schedule

The anticipated close of escrow is August 2008.

Condition of Property

In April 2008, the Department of General Services (DGS) - Environmental Services Section personnel conducted a Condition of Property visit of the above properties in San Luis Obispo County. The properties are approximately 2,009.2 acres in size and are characterized as steeply-sloped coastal chaparral. The only improvements are an unoccupied cedar and shake home, two small wells, a small unoccupied cabin, and a small storage shed. The cedar and shake home is situated on the former Basseri property and appears to be in good condition. One of the wells is not operational. No hazards or environmental conditions were observed. A Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA), dated November 15, 2007, was provided to DGS/ESS personnel and indicated that no recognized environmental conditions were found.

Other:

The Board approved these properties for site selection at the June 13, 2008, and July 11, 2008, meetings.

Legal access for six of the parcels is via See Canyon Road, a county road.

Two of the parcels do not have legal access. DPR believes it possible that these two parcels may have historical access since they were originally acquired from the Federal Government pursuant to the Homestead Act, which requires occupation of the property as a condition of the Homestead Act grant, and further implies access as to facilitate the qualifying occupation. DPR will continue to research whether access actually exists. In the future event that the two land-locked parcels become desirable for trail development DPR will pursue access easements through neighboring BLM property. Although neither of these parcels would be in the intended trail rights-of-way, their purchase is necessary due to the “all or nothing” nature of these transactions.

The properties identified as Number 1 and 1A (Andre Properties) on the attached map consist of 730.2 acres, and are critical for trail development, viewshed preservation, and access to the other parcels being acquired. The larger of the two properties, Number 1 (530.2 acres) provides public access via See Canyon Road, and also will serve as a staging area/trailhead that would allow for immediate public recreational use. The Andre properties have an appraised value of $1,825,000 and are currently under an option agreement that expires in September 2008.

The ten parcels identified as Number 2 on the attached map (TNC) total 1,279 acres, and have an appraised value of $3,842,000. These will also be used for trail development and viewshed protection.

The proposed future Phase 2 acquisitions indicated (Number 3) on the attachment will provide a gateway to the town of Avila and fulfill the DPR’s vision at Irish Hill. These two parcels, the Hibberd Preserve and the Avila Ranch, consist of 1,500 acres and 2,400 acres, respectively.

Once all parcels have been acquired they will serve as plottage to each other, thus providing legal access to all parcels except the two previously discussed land-locked parcels.

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been approached to obtain public trail easements across its properties . BLM has delivered a letter endorsing DPR’s potential acquisition as an addition to Montana de Oro State Park and has also indicated a willingness to work with DPR in evaluating whether BLM land could contribute towards the coastal trail project.

PG&E has also been contacted in regard to obtaining a trail easement on their land, if needed. PG&E recently open to the public a hiking trail over a portion of the buffer lands surrounding Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant on June 28, 2008 as a condition of receiving a permit for building a storage facility for used reactor fuel. This newly open hiking trail commences at Montana de Oro State Parks and winds through the power plant buffer area to Crowbar Canyon and the Point Buchon Trail.

The purchase price will not exceed the estimated fair market value as determined by an appraisal reviewed by DGS.

There is no relocation assistance involved with this project.

There is no implied dedication.

The DPR is not aware of any lawsuits pending on the property. The Property Acquisition Agreement (PAA) requires delivery of title to the property free and clear of any mortgages or liens.

Any changes to public access, use, development, resources, or habitat protection will be addressed through the normal budget process.

DPR will at a later date determine the status of the small cabin located on the property. For the time being it will remain on the property and left unoccupied. The cedar and shake home will either serve as a DPR regional office and/or possible ranger housing.

The PAA does not include the state’s standard indemnification language, potentially exposing the state to additional fiscal liability; however, neither the Environmental Impact Report nor the physical site visit by ESS staff identified any adverse conditions that would likely pose an exceptional risk to the state. Further, given the fact that the property is largely unimproved natural habitat, the risk associated with acquiring these properties without the standard indemnification is low. It should be noted that the lack of indemnification language does not relieve the Seller of liability under existing law.

DPR has indicated that the interim operation of both phases of the Irish Hills acquisitions can be accomplished with existing staff and equipment. Any future staffing, operations, and maintenance costs of the final completed Irish Hills project development will be considered through the normal budget process.

DPR currently anticipates opening the properties to public use in January 2010.

Staff Recommendation: Authorize acquisition.

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