By Todd Wels

Triplicate staff writer

The State of California is looking to buy property around Lake Earl to expand the Lake Earl Wildlife Area.

Wildlife Conservation Board representative Jim Sarro appeared before the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to explain how such purchases would be conducted, and what impact, if any, the purchases would have on public access to the lake.

Were ready to start now, Sarro said, regarding when purchases could begin.

According to Sarro, the Wildlife Conservation Board has, in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Game, spent a long time looking into the possibility of expanding the Lake Earl Wildlife Area to protect nearby wetlands and animal habitat.

Though he said he could not legally reveal which land owners he had engaged in discussions with, Sarro said he had recently attended a meeting of more than 30 interested property owners and that they and others would soon receive letters of intent from the Wildlife Conservation Board.

The Wildlife Conservation Board will have the property of interested landowners appraised for its value by local appraisers.

Once that is done, that amount will be sent to the State General Services Department, which must approve the amount of the appraisal before the Wildlife Conservation Board can purchase the property.

When asked by Supervisor Martha McClure what percentage of the appraised value a property owner could be expected to receive, Sarro replied: Were obliged by law to offer fair market value.

However, he added, Were not authorized to pay above the fair market value.

Sarro was quick to point out no one would be forced to sell their property to the state.

Folks that dont want to (sell), they just tell us goodbye, he said.

When asked whether the Wildlife Conservation Board was in a position to begin eminent domain proceedings against any holdouts who do not sell, Sarro said funding for the project was contingent on voluntary sales, and that we would not do that anyway.

Sarro said he could not comment on the total amount his agency was willing to spend in the area, as there have been no appraisals.

However, he pointed out that the Wildlife Conservation Boards current statewide budget is far in excess of $150 million.

Supervisor Chuck Blackburn expressed concerns that a state purchase of properties would have an adverse effect on the countys property tax revenue.

Were 72 percent government-owned in this county already, Blackburn complained.

Sarro said the Department of Fish and Game would be required by law to pay a fee in lieu of county property taxes, which would be equal to the amount of tax assessed to the properties during the year they were purchased by the department and the Wildlife Conservation Board.

Blackburn also expressed uneasiness about whether local access to Lake Earl would be somehow restricted by the planned purchases.

Hopefully it would even improve it, Sarro replied, noting that all easements would be kept intact.

Supervisor David Finigan asked whether Sarros agency would be willing to support the countys efforts to lower the lake level, or if it supported Fish and Games contention that higher lake levels should be maintained.

Sarro replied by saying his agency was not prepared to weigh in on that issue.

The board took no action on Sarros proposal, directing more than 30 audience members to speak to him outside the meeting if they had any questions.