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Conservancy gets $3 million boost for land preservation

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

On Tuesday the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy voted unanimously to set aside a $3 million grant for the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy’s campaign to acquire land in the Claremont hills where the Clara Oaks development has been proposed.

The vote came after State Senator Anthony J. Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge) testified his strong support of the grant, as a follow up to a letter he wrote to the agency advocating for Claremont Wildlands Conservancy’s effort.

The Rivers and Mountains Conservancy received significant funding in the 2021-2022 state budget in part because of Senator Portantino’s negotiations and the senate’s budget priorities. Senator Portantino introduced SB 45 last year, a $5 billion bond which included funding for the conservancies. However, with the funding in the state budget, the bond is no longer needed.

As the chair of the senate committee on appropriations, Senator Portantino was instrumental in the final budget negotiations that yielded strong fiscal support for the Rivers and Mountains and the Santa Monica Mountains conservancies, according to his office. He has been a longtime and consistent supporter of preserving open spaces and expanding outdoor recreation activities.

Claremont Wildlands Conservancy has been working to acquire Clara Oaks for years, and last summer began a more focused campaign to raise enough money to buy the two parcels totaling 103 acres. If the campaign succeeds, the local conservancy, in conjunction with the Trust for Public Land, will facilitate the sale of the land to the City of Claremont and the two parcels would then be integrated into the existing Claremont Hills Wilderness Park.

“The Trust for Public Land requested funding to acquire 103 acres of foothill open space to add to the City of Claremont’s popular 2,507-acre Claremont Hills Wilderness Park. The parcel … provides a critical link between the open space of Claremont’s park to the east and Los Angeles County’s Marshall Canyon Regional Park to the west, helping to extend a wildland corridor from the L.A. County line westward along the face of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains as far as Monrovia,” Senator Portantino’s office said in a statement.

“Clara Oaks is the last large property in Claremont’s hillsides that could accommodate a large development of homes,” Terry Grill, president of the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy said. “We at Claremont Wildlands Conservancy have been working for over three years to add it to the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park, and we are thrilled to have Senator Portantino’s active support. With his help, the Board of the state-funded Rivers and Mountains Conservancy has awarded $3 million toward the purchase of Clara Oaks from the owner-developer. These funds provide a strong foundation on which we can build additional support for saving Clara Oaks and expanding the park. We are deeply grateful for the support of the senator, the Board and staff of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and our partner, the Trust for Public Land.”

In 2018 the land was appraised for $7.2 million, so this grant certainly puts the group on track to be successful, but they still have a lot of work ahead. Claremont resident Hugh Coxe, a project manager with The Trust for Public Land, has been assigned to work with the conservancy and the developer to negotiate the final deal which will include a new appraisal.

In the meantime the grant money has been set aside for the acquisition of Clara Oaks and the Wildlands Conservancy has until June of 2024 to close the deal, which will include continued fundraising. The local grassroots campaign has raised $192,000 mostly via direct appeals through the organization’s newsletter and email lists, as well as outreach at the farmer’s market and an insert in the COURIER.

Fortunately for the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy, the landowners, Clara Oaks Estate, LLC, represented by Randy Lim, are on board with the idea to preserve the land as long as the conservancy can raise money in time.

Clara Oaks is still in the very early stages of the approval process and has many hurdles to overcome before the developer can break ground, including a conditional use permit, a tentative tract map, a zone change, a specific plan, a corresponding general plan amendment and the preparation and certification of an environmental impact report.

Additionally, because the only access to the property, Webb Canyon Road, traverses both the City of Claremont and unincorporated lands, officials with Los Angeles County will be involved in the entitlement process including the environmental review.

The Claremont Hills Wilderness Park began with the creation of the 40-acre Sycamore Canyon Park in the early 1970s. In 1996 a deal was struck with Pomona College to add 1,200 acres, including the very popular “loop trail.” Since then, there have been seven additional acquisitions including the $11.5 million purchase of Johnson’s Pasture, which was paid for in part by a bond measure approved by Claremont voters in 2006.

Claremont Wildlands Conservancy incorporated in 2000 to assist in the effort to stop the development of Johnson’s Pasture, which the city bought following the passage of a bond measure. Since then it has been key in the ongoing effort to preserve as much hillside land as possible.

“Trying to acquire this property has truly been a community effort and I want to thank all those involved in getting the possible purchase this far,” Senator Portantino said. “I was proud to speak in support of a resolution today that authorizes a $3 million grant to the Claremont Hills Wildlands Conservancy and very pleased that the state senate made funding our conservancies a top legislative priority. I look forward to continuing our efforts to expand and preserve open space in our communities and this is an important step towards that goal.”

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