San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy Board Member Paul Worthington brings up invasive plants for removal during a spring cleaning at Gateway Park earlier this year. The Conservancy is still working to raise money to pay off the $3.75 million loan it received to purchase the property in 2011. File photo

Nonprofit still working to ensure lagoon is saved

CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — Thousands of travelers soak in the captivating view of the ocean, lagoon and cliffs while traversing on the Pacific Coast Hwy. 101 from Solana Beach to Cardiff. 

Yet, for over two decades the “gateway,” as the area is commonly known, has been subject to development that would have closed an important ecological, as well as aesthetic corridor.

Doug Gibson, executive director of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy said ensuring the gateway remains open space is a dream finally realized after much hard work and perseverance. In late December of last year, a group spearheaded by the conservancy closed escrow on the 3.44-acres of land.

“I’ve been at the conservancy for 16 years,” Gibson said, “and the property has been on our radar for at least 13 years. It is a key-critical property. It’s worth more than $12 million (the selling price at one time) to future generations, but to try to raise those funds seemed infeasible.

“In land acquisition, state, county or federal funding sources for habitat are the norm. This property was different,” Gibson, said, “those sources weren’t readily available.”

The nonprofit had to act quickly in order to seize the opportunity to buy the land.

The property was foreclosed in spring 2011. The bank wouldn’t open a dialogue with the organization, according to Gibson. A Wisconsin-based bank owned the note and eventually put out a request for proposal. Two construction companies and the conservancy came in as the final bids, Gibson said. The bank required the sale to close by the end of the year. Once selected, the “scramble began” to come up with the funds, Gibson said.

“We started calling supporters; anyone we thought would help with the purchase,” Gibson said. The lenders formed an LLC which in turn loaned the funds to the conservancy to purchase the gateway property. “It protected the lenders and the organization,” Gibson said. The organization is also a member of the LLC, as it was a lender. There are 14 other members.

The Gateway Park LLC paid $3.75 million for the property. Now, the race is on to repay the lenders Gibson said. “Donors from as far away as Paris, came through for the organization,” Gibson said.

The organization pays 3.2 percent interest on the note but several lenders have donated that amount back. “These people have faith in us, in the ability of the organization,” Gibson said. “The land is secure, but not yet saved,” said Gerri Retman-Opper, a Solana Beach resident. “If we don’t raise the money to repay the lenders the property will go back on the market. We’ve worked too hard for too long to let that happen.”

The capital campaign to pay back the lenders has taken on many iterations. “We’ve already secured $1.5 million in promises and donations,” Gibson said. “We’re very confident this will come to fruition. Phase II is what do we do with it now.”

“This is just a great example of how individuals coming together in a community can make a real difference in the enjoyment of life for generations to come,” Janie DeCelles, a Cardiff resident said. “I’m thrilled to be part of this.”

The conservancy has big plans for the property. “The highest value asset a community can have is open space,” Gibson said. “This has community value and a lot of ecological value.” Viewing decks are the only planned construction on the buffer. “The site will become important for education programs, it offers a view we haven’t had before.”

“The buffer land acts as a refuge for species during high tides and storms,” Gibson said. “The wetland it’s protecting becomes more valuable. There is a higher diversity of species as a result.”

“I consider the opportunity to preserve this site as a major quality of life opportunity,” DeCelles said. “I treasure the experience of the majestic views from the Gateway site up the coast to be a huge part of the pure joy of being a San Diegan.”

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