The Carlsbad-based nonprofit Leichtag Foundation completed the purchase of the 67-acre Paul Ecke Ranch site in Encinitas last month. The foundation announced it would be gifting 12 acres to the San Diego Botanic Gardens to help them expand, though the gift comes with some conditions. Photo by Tony Cagala
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Potential land gift ‘once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity’ for Botanic Garden

ENCINITAS — The San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas has longed to expand its grounds for years. 

The hope looked like a longshot with development increasingly swallowing up the surrounding area. But growth might be in sight after all.

The Leichtag Foundation proposed a plan last Saturday to gift land that’s adjacent to the northern part of the Botanic Garden.

Last month, the Leichtag Foundation completed its purchase of the 67-acre Ecke Ranch property. Under the Leichtag Foundation’s plan, it would donate around 12 acres of that land to the 37-acre Botanic Garden.

A new parking lot, welcome center, possible arts village and other potential amenities could be built on the land, where poinsettia-growing greenhouses can be found presently.

“This could be our last chance to expand,” said Julian Duval, president of the Botanic Garden. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If it all goes well this would be celebrated for hundreds of years.”

While more than worthwhile in his mind, Duval cautioned that moving forward with the plan “won’t be easy,” because there are “some fair concerns” that need to be addressed.

For the expansion to get the green light, the Botanic Garden will have to raise enough money and meet other requirements laid out by the Leichtag Foundation, according to Jim Farley, the organization’s president and CEO.

Farley said the Botanic Garden must bring in an estimated $25 million to $40 million from donors to construct improvements, particularly a new parking lot and welcome center.

Farley explained that most believe the current parking lot at the Garden is not well placed for visitors, and the expansion would only compound this problem.

Among other amenities, funds would also go to an arts village in the vein of offerings at Balboa Park, Farley said.

“We want a robust collaboration between different groups; the idea is that this would create a lot of enthusiasm by getting people in the community involved,” Farley said.

Farley said the arts center would likely fit within the land’s current agricultural zoning. That’s because the arts center would place agricultural education at its core, he said.

The second qualification to get approval from the Leichtag Foundation: Farley believes the Botanic Garden must settle on a better way to it select its board of trustees.

All of the more than 5,000 Botanic Garden members can weigh in on who is appointed to the board. Few practice their voting power at meetings, so in theory a faction of members could collude and hijack the process without others knowing.

“There’s a really small chance of that,” Farley said. “We’d still like to see better governance.”

Lastly, Farley said the Botanic Garden needs a new model for ownership.

Currently, San Diego County and the City of Encinitas own the Botanic Garden under two different leases, both of which expire at different times. This could be problematic in the event of the leaseholders going “in two different directions,” Farley said.

“We want donors to be assured this will stay as public land and not be subject to legal fights or anything like that,” Farley said. “Some kind of joint ownership may be a solution.”

Farley said it’s difficult to pinpoint a project timeline for the land gift, but noted it could be five to 10 years or so before the requirements are fulfilled. Until then, the greenhouses that dot the land will likely remain in place.

“We have a real chance to serve the community and future families,” Farley said.