Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Airport needs wetlands as set-aside for project

The local airport authority is closer to acquiring land in the Pacific Shores Subdivision needed to mitigate the loss of wetlands for a runway improvement project, but some property owners might balk at the price offered for lots.

Last week, the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority unanimously approved a motion to accept a new appraisal report that valued Pacific Shores Subdivision lots at $5,000 apiece and to send letters to some buyers offering a one-time offer for the lots at that price.

Offers-to-purchase letters will be going to 225 properties whose owners have expressed a willingness to sell or have requested more information. Thirty-seven properties in tax default and 20 properties owned by the county will also be receiving the purchase offer, according to authority officials.

Del Norte County approved the Pacific Shores subdivision near Lake Earl/Tolowa in 1963.

Kelly Smith, an attorney who represents the Pacific Shores Property Owners Association, which accounts for roughly 150 of the remaining private lots, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that the $5,000-per-lot offer is "a rate that's obviously intended to find suckers."

The Runway Safety Area project, which would create an open, flat buffer zone in case a plane over- or undershoots the runway, is a congressionally mandated project that must be complete by 2015.

The project will disturb just under 17 acres of land that state regulators have deemed environmentally sensitive habitat, home to nine protected plant and animal species.

In order to mitigate the loss of the habitat, the California Coastal Commission is requiring that new wetlands be created at a 4:1 ratio, hence the attempt to buy lands in the Pacific Shores Subdivision.

Last year, county supervisors agreed to allow the airport to use county roads in Pacific Shores to re-create wetlands. But ripping out the roads alone will provide no more than 35 acres of viable wetland habitat, which falls well below the 68 acres needed to appease state regulators.

Further complicating the difficult situation is the fact that if all property owners on a given road decide to sell except for one owner at the end of the street, the county is still required to leave that road to provide access to the remaining lot, airport officials have said.

"When we talk about road removal we have to own all of the lots adjacent to that road. So if we don't buy the lots, we don't remove that piece of road because we can't legally landlock anybody," said BCRAA director Jim Bernard during a February meeting for Pacific Shores property owners.

During last week's meeting, the BCRAA board also voted to revise mitigation strategies to include the option of lot purchases only - without road removal.

The BCRAA had hoped to identify sellers and enter into purchase agreements by June, because if the authority does not submit an application during this Federal Aviation Administration grant cycle, then the authority would be competing next year with much larger (and more politically favored) airports that are also required to complete RSA projects.

After decades of feeling swindled into buying lots that were never allowed to be developed, Pacific Shores property owners are often skeptical about dealing with any government acquisition projects.

"It doesn't surprise me that government has found another way to rip off the owners of Pacific Shores property," said Smith, the attorney for the property owners association.

Smith pointed to a 2011 lawsuit filed by nine property owners against the state that awarded the plaintiffs with damages for flooding that occurs on some Pacific Shores properties as a result of a 2005 Lake Earl Management Plan. Smith said that the jury for that suit valued the properties at $15,500 per lot.

"It's hastily conceived at best," Smith said of the mitigation plan.

During the property owners meeting, Bernard emphasized that there is no obligation for any property owners to sell.

"This site has a long and sordid history and I'm not familiar with all of the details, nor have I been around long enough to know what went down and when, but we're trying to be - in this presentation and this project - as transparent as we can and present the owner with an honest opportunity that they have they every chance to say no to - right up until the time we sign papers," Bernard said. "So there's no coercion or strong arm tactics. It's a simple yes or no negotiation."

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