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Acquisition of North County habitat preserves Elfin Forest

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Two hundred thirty-four acres of habitat preservation land along Questhaven Road in the Elfin Forest area, adjacent to San Marcos and Escondido, has been purchased for $11 million.

It's just part of $850 million in planned acquisitions to be largely fueled by TransNet half-cent gasoline sales taxes.

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) reports that $650 million will be spent to mitigate transportation impacts. Another $200 million will be spent for regional habitat acquisition, management and monitoring activities.

The Elfin Forest land, purchased on behalf of The Conservation Fund of Arlington, Va., was funded in large part with a $8 million allocation from SANDAG's Environmental Mitigation Program (which uses the TransNet funds). Another $2.1 million came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the county of San Diego contributed $830,000.

The Conservation Fund, which acts as a facilitator in these types of transactions, took the title on Feb. 23 before immediately deeding the property over to the county, which will manage the asset.

"The Conservation Fund is like the Nature Conservancy that way," said Keith Greer, SANDAG senior environmental planner. "They're not property owners."

The seller of the property was Elfin Forest LLC, with Hover Development of Newport Beach as its managing member.

Hover, which called the property Sage Hill, originally planned for 70 estate homes, but the developer couldn't make the project viable.

The property habitat includes coastal sage scrub -- deemed critical to the survival of the threatened California gnatcatcher -- a live oak forest and a fresh water marsh.

"It is very rare to find such a large undeveloped parcel of such high quality habitat in the northern San Diego County area," said Scott Ferguson, director of Southern California Programs for The Conservation Fund.

The SANDAG's environmental mitigation program (EMP) fills the future mitigation needs of major transportation infrastructure improvement projects comprehensively, rather than on a project-by-project basis, to maximize the cost-savings of early land acquisition.

SANDAG said a close coordination between its agency, the county, and The Conservation Fund was necessary to make the plan work.

"This partnership achieves all our goals," said Gary Gallegos, SANDAG executive director.

"We preserve open space for future generations, mitigate for highway and local road construction, and expand the county's park system for use by the public."

The property, which is being incorporated into the North County Multiple Species Conservation Program, is one component of the government/Conservation Fund consortium that has acquired approximately 824 acres of land and spent just $31.5 million of the eventual $850 million thus far.

So is Ferguson worried that the economy could pull the rug out from the Conservation Fund's efforts? Yes and no.

"We are in a very challenging environment, but the good news is both Orange and San Diego counties are marrying conservation and transportation improvements, and that's providing us with opportunities we wouldn't have otherwise had," Ferguson said.

Greer said under this current partnership arrangement, the Conservation Fund also facilitated the sale of 43 acres on Otay Mesa for a reported $6.5 million in November of last year.

Other sales last year involved two properties along the San Luis Rey River of 136 and 280 acres that were reportedly sold for $4.7 million and $11.1 million, respectively.

Another 30 acres in of Conservation Fund-facilitated land in the San Dieguito area was purchased for $886,000 in recent months as part of this program as well.

The remaining program money is expected to be generated and distributed in much the same manner, on a case-by-case basis.

So what's next? Ferguson said eight or 10 transactions are being eyed that should net 1,500 acres of habitat of preservation land northeast of Warner Springs. In this case the land is being donated to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Ferguson said this property is in addition to 2,500 acres of neighboring Warner Springs land in Conservation Fund-facilitated transactions to the BLM, that predated the current SANDAG/San Diego County partnership. The meantime, The Conservation Fund continues to look.

"We're always looking for the next opportunity," Ferguson said.

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