Archive Article

Pay attention: Time closing in on open space

Date: April 13, 2005 Page: b1 Section: Local



by Robert Price

The National Audubon Society, with help from others, is stepping up to buy and preserve more than 4,000 acres, including meadowland and cottonwood forest, along the South Fork of the Kern River. The purchase was inspired primarily by endangered species protection issues -- but also, to an extent, by widespread concern that development would eventually come to that pristine corner of the Kern River Valley.

I hope the right people are taking notes.

If only we'd heard from that organization, or others with similar goals, when Bakersfield's most stunning (and, now, most endangered) vista was relatively affordable, and probably available, 15 years ago. If only we'd heard from city leaders when few had yet envisioned Santa Clarita-style hillside development on the northeast bluffs.

We can envision that disaster now.

Thank God somebody is buying the Sprague Ranch to keep those rolling hills 48 miles to the east from eventually turning into high-dollar lots, too. There's space elsewhere, closer to existing population centers, for people to live.

Twenty-five years after the Nature Conservancy of California acquired land on the South Fork, the Audubon Society has moved in next door, doubling the size of the Kern River Preserve and ensuring we'll stay adequately stocked in those underappreciated local commodities, wildflowers and open space.

There were conversations about the bluffs years ago, too, but nothing came of them.

Arthur Unger of the Sierra Club wrote a letter to the Bakersfield Planning Commission, back when it was developing the 1990 Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan, saying the city had an opportunity at that time to "acquire a portion of the San Joaquin Valley bioregion" and prevent Bakersfield from becoming "another soul-stifling metropolis."

Deduct points for hyperbole but give Unger credit for sensing opportunity.

Wrote Unger: "If these expensive lands (on and near the bluffs) are not brought into the public domain soon, infrastructure will approach them and their price will increase beyond reach."

And that's exactly what has happened.

Instead of trying to buy the bluffs as habitat preserve, the city bought the environmentally sensitive Lokern region near Buttonwillow. That decision made economic sense at the time and took valuable habitat off the table, sparing it from potentially damaging uses. But it failed to address the eventual development of the city's greatest aesthetic resource -- the bluffs.

Now we've got a developer, General Holdings Inc., that's clearly thumbing its nose at the intent of the trail preservation agreement it endorsed in September 2003.

The Sacramento company's ability to develop portions of its 880 acres on those bluffs hinges on its willingness to place city-owned easements -- linear parks specifically for the use of hikers, runners, cyclists and equestrians -- throughout the area, as agreed.

But next month General Holdings will impose a five-year no-more-trespassing lockdown on its land, precisely the length of time that's required to void the "prescriptive easement" that has most likely been created by the public's open, obvious and long-standing recreational use of the property.

Since no one posted "No Trespassing" signs all those years, the land essentially became -- and General Holdings would argue this, of course -- public land. Closing it completely now, in theory, reverses that.

But the sudden privacy also might tempt General Holdings to start disking up the land, cutting hills and filling ravines, creating possible erosion issues and depriving the rest of us of the access OK'd by the company just 18 months ago.

Any development on the bluffs will at some point almost certainly come before the Bakersfield City Council. As the property owner, General Holdings has development rights, but the city gets to decide how many lots go in, and where.

The further General Holdings deviates from the letter, intent and spirit of that 2003 agreement, the fewer and smaller their lots become, if the City Council's growing irritation is any indication.

Here's the greater lesson for us all: Let's not let it come to this anymore. There are places where development makes sense and places where it doesn't.

Let's find the places worth preserving, whether it's for parks or wildlife habitat, and start dreaming big -- now, while the land is less expensive than it will be in 15 years.

The National Audubon Society has done just that at Sprague Ranch, near the mountain town of Weldon. Good thing somebody is looking ahead.

Robert Price appears each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Read his columns online at: .


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