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By Joe Naiman
Village News Correspondent 

FPUD and Wildlands in escrow on Santa Margarita property

Sale will preserve one of county's top trail systems

 

Last updated 8/17/2018 at 2:50pm

Shane Gibson photo

The Wildlands Conservancy will keep the 18 miles of multi-use trails along the Santa Margarita River open for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.

The Fallbrook Public Utility District and The Wildlands Conservancy are in escrow over a sale agreement for the Fallbrook Public Utility District's Santa Margarita property.

A 4-1 FPUD board vote, April 30, with Charley Wolk opposed, approved the sale and purchase agreement along with escrow instructions, and the escrow agreement was executed June 8. If the sale is finalized, The Wildlands Conservancy would pay FPUD $10 million for the 1,384-acre property which was at one time planned for a dam along the Santa Margarita River.

"It's been a long effort with a lot of individuals involved to make it happen," FPUD acting general manager Jack Bebee said.

The Wildlands Conservancy has placed a $50,000 non-refundable deposit which will be applied toward the purchase price if escrow closes. Escrow must close before April 20, 2019, although if The Wildlands Conservancy wishes to extend the close of escrow to April 20, 2020, the conservancy can do so by submitting a written request and providing an additional $200,000 non-refundable deposit within 30 days of that written request.

The June 5 election included the passage of Proposition 68 which authorized $4 billion of general obligation bonds for state and local park, environmental protection, water infrastructure and flood protection programs. The proposal from The Wildlands Conservancy to purchase the property included using a $10 million Proposition 68 grant to fund the purchase.

Fallbrook Trails Council, which for the past 19 years has maintained 18 miles of trails on the Santa Margarita property, worked as a team with The Wildlands Conservancy on Proposition 68.

"Before that June election, we had postcards that Wildlands had supplied to us to get people to vote for Proposition 68 because the Santa Margarita was called out in it and they could get funding," Donna Gebhart, chair of Fallbrook Trails Council said. "Wildlands is an incredible team, and we worked very hard under their guidance. They were phenomenal mentors and they definitely led it."

Gebhart said Fallbrook Trails Council has worked with The Wildlands Conservancy for two years in an effort to keep the Santa Margarita property open for people to enjoy.

"We've been taking care of this valley for a long time, and the bottom line is we wanted this to be preserved, not only to protect the land, but we wanted to keep our existing 18 miles of public trails open for riding, hiking and bicycling," Gebhart said. "That was the main thing."

Gebhart is proud of the trails, which she said annually attract 80,000 to 100,000 visitors.

"In 2014, our trail system was the No. 1 trail system in San Diego County," Gebhart said. "People come from all of Southern California. It's incredible."

Gebhart said Fallbrook Trails Council will continue its stewardship of the trails for new owner of the property.

"We will be in charge of maintaining them and raising funds in order to maintain them and do our projects, just as we have since 1999," Gebhart said, who added Fallbrook Trails Council is always looking for volunteers. For more information, visit http://fallbrooktrailscouncil.com/.

The conditions of escrow include that a trail easement granted by The Wildlands Conservancy to either the Live Oak Park Coalition or the Fallbrook Trails Council be recorded. FPUD, the Wildlands Conservancy and the Live Oak Park Coalition or the Fallbrook Trails Council must approve a written trail easement agreement. The Live Oak Park Coalition was founded in 1993 after the county's budget struggles in the early 1990s led to a proposal to close Live Oak Park.

The county still owns Live Oak Park while the Live Oak Park Coalition handles maintenance and funds some capital improvements. The county also funds some improvements at Live Oak Park, and the county's Park Lands Dedication Ordinance allows developer fees to be used for any park open to the public so Live Oak Park is eligible for PLDO funding. Because the Live Oak Park Coalition is an incorporated entity with nonprofit status the coalition can enter into contracts.

A partnership between the Fallbrook Trails Council and the Live Oak Park Coalition which allows the Trails Council to utilize the Live Oak Park Coalition's nonprofit status began in 2015. If the Fallbrook Trails Council completes incorporation with nonprofit status before the close of escrow the trail easement agreement will be between FPUD, The Wildlands Conservancy and the Fallbrook Trails Council. If such 501(c)(3) status has not been obtained, the Live Oak Park Coalition rather than the Fallbrook Trails Council will be the agreement party.

The clauses of the escrow agreement also stipulate that The Wildlands Conservancy will manage the property in accordance with an integrated resource management plan. That plan will preserve the existing 18-mile trail system on the property, maintain year-round access to the property for passive recreational uses and preserve the property from development. The Wildlands Conservancy and the Live Oak Park Coalition have prepared a draft management plan, and the escrow agreement acknowledges that future management could be modified if circumstances and public needs change. Regardless of whether the management plan changes the conditions require the trail easement to remain in full force without modification.

The escrow agreement also calls for The Wildlands Conservancy to manage the property through an on-site preserve manager and a ranger beginning 90 days after the escrow opening date and continuing until the close of escrow.

In the late 1940s, the FPUD board pursued the building of a dam on the Santa Margarita River and purchased the 1,384-acre property with the intent to use the land for a dam. Issues involving U.S. Marine Base Camp Pendleton water rights needed to be resolved at higher government levels, and by the time that occurred environmental and funding issues prevented the dam from being built. The plans for the dam have been replaced with the Santa Margarita River Conjunctive Use Project which would enhance groundwater recharge and recovery capacity within the lower Santa Margarita River basin and develop a program to increase available water supplies for Camp Pendleton and FPUD.

The Santa Margarita property includes approximately 18 miles of multi-use trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. FPUD owns the trails but has a maintenance agreement with the Fallbrook Trails Council. The county's general plan designates the property as Public Agency Lands while the zoning is S80 open space for all but a 3.6-acre parcel which has A70 limited agriculture zoning.

In September 2015, FPUD's board approved a sale agreement of the 1,384-acre property to Western Rivers Conservancy for $9,975,000, and the revenue from the sale would have been earmarked to construct the Conjunctive Use Project facilities. The purchase and sale agreement stipulated an escrow closing date of Dec. 31, 2016, unless Western Rivers Conservancy chose to increase the deposit and extend escrow to June 30, 2017.

The expectation was for the land to be placed into a permanent conservation easement, and the purchase and sale agreement stipulated that a recreational trails easement as well as a long-term stewardship agreement would be finalized before the close of escrow. The process would have involved The Wildlands Conservancy undertaking the role of the long-term steward for the entire land with an equestrian easement being granted to the Fallbrook Trails Council. Concurrence in writing by FPUD, Western Rivers Conservancy, The Wildlands Conservancy and the Fallbrook Trails Council would have been necessary for the agreement to be finalized.

The conditions to close escrow were not met, and in June 2017, FPUD's board voted 3-2 to reject a motion which would have extended the escrow agreement with Western Rivers Conservancy for an additional 90 days. In September 2017, the FPUD board voted 4-1, with Milt Davies opposed, to issue a Request for Proposals soliciting interested parties to propose a transaction agreement to acquire the Santa Margarita River property which would include preserving access to the trails on the land.

The proposals were due by Jan. 15, and needed the proposed compensation to FPUD, the terms and conditions of the transaction and a detailed summary including ownership structure and principals, management experience and financial capacity to complete the transaction and preserve the property.

The Wildlands Conservancy was the only organization to submit a proposal. The Wildlands Conservancy is based in California and is a nonprofit private entity whose mission is to provide passive recreation and education opportunities which are free to the public.

The Wildlands Conservancy presented its proposal to the FPUD board at the Feb. 26 board meeting; that presentation was a non-voting item with no action taken.

 

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