The Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan Trust Group voted unanimously Thursday morning to acquire a “crown jewel” of habitat ground — 847 acres of upland and bluffs above the Kern River.
The land, once destined for more than 1,300 homes as part of the controversial The Canyons development, is now on its way to becoming a haven for endangered species and as an open air conservation classroom for Bakersfield.
Conservation Plan Trust members said the land will used as “habitat first.”
“We’re not buying this land for a park,” said Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt.
But representatives of the city of Bakersfield, Kern County, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the land is perfect for teaching the public about the plant and animal heritage of the Bakersfield.
“It’s just an excellent piece of property that is close to the community,” said trust group chairman Jim Eggert, the city of Bakersfield planning director.
Giving the public limited access to the land gives people used to seeing species like the San Joaquin kit fox in an urban area a chance to see the animals in their natural environment, Eggert said.
Oviatt, the other member of the two-person trust board, said the county is committed to working with the city and Fish and Wildlife to develop a management plan maximizing the educational potential of the land, which she called a “crown jewel.”
“This piece of property has a lot of love from the community,” she said.
But the plan would also allow the land — crisscrossed by hikers, runners and people on horses, bicycles and off-road vehicles for decades — to be rehabilitated.
Trespassing would be reduced, Oviatt said, and ground scarred by years of use would be returned to its natural state.
Annee Ferranti, a senior environmental scientist at Fish and Wildlife, said that her agency agrees with the city and county about the unique opportunity to both heal the land and teach the public.
She said that once the property is purchased, the habitat conservation trust group will chose how much of the land will be transferred to Fish and Wildlife for the creation of an ecological reserve.
Then the two will develop side-by-side plans for the land that will allow the public to access trust land and the remediation of the Fish and Wildlife reserve land into habitat.
Thursday’s vote is not the final word on the $5.06 million purchase of the land out of the $39 million bankruptcy of The Canyons lender Cascade Acceptance Corp.
City of Bakersfield planner Martin Ortiz warned that there was a final step to complete before the sale can go through: The city must complete an environmental assessment of the property.
“We need to see what’s out there,” Ortiz said.
Then that environmental review will be taken to the bankruptcy court which must approve the sale, he said.
Voices at Thursday’s meeting were raised in nearly universal support of the idea.
Rich O’Neil of the Kern River Parkway Foundation, a nonprofit that has supported the development of habitat and public amenities along the Kern River for decades, offered his group’s support for repairing damage on the bluffs and in developing a management plan for the land.
“We want to thank the city and county for not giving up on this property,” he said.
Michelle Beck, of the Bakersfield Bluffs and Open Space Committee, said she believes the joint use of the land for trails and public education — side-by-side with wildlife habitat — will turn the land into a unique resource for Bakersfield.
Eggert said the timing is fortunate for the Trust Group. The approximate $5 million is the bulk of the remaining habitat mitigation money the group, funded by a fee on development, has to spend.
The group is due to disband in August and, while the city and county plan to launch a successor group, the funds collected so far must be spent before the trust group can break up, Eggert said.
The purchase of The Canyons property, Eggert said, is the most significant buy inside the Metropolitan Bakersfield area and one of the largest the group, which usually buys land far from urban areas, has ever made.