Parcel being bought by San Diego County for open space and recreation is south of Willow Road and adjacent to Cactus County Park. Image via Google Maps

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday unanimously voted to spend $2.9 million to buy a 98-acre parcel of land in Lakeside for open space and recreation purposes.

The parcel, owned by the Helix Water District, is in the El Monte Valley near Lake Jennings and a proposed sand mining project.

The San Diego River Conservancy Board previously signed off on the county’s acquisition of the parcel, located south of Willow Road and adjacent to Cactus County Park. Three existing leases will be transferred to the county, with the money they generate paying for park operations.

Based on a suggestion by Supervisor Joel Anderson, the board also agreed to discuss improvements to the parcel, which could cost up to $6 million, in March. In its current state, the parcel includes homeless encampments, invasive vegetative such as tamarisk trees, and a ballpark in poor condition.

According to a county staff report, Helix would only sell the parcel in an “as-is” condition. Unless improvements are made, the land cannot be part of the Multiple Species Conservation Plan.

Anderson was originally opposed to the purchase, which is in his district, saying the land wasn’t worth the price.

“If we buy this, and no further progress is made, we now own land that’s useless in its condition,” Anderson said. “I’m going to inherit a homeless encampment, and all these other issues. I want to hold Helix responsible for the blight.”

Anderson said the county is spending up to $30,000 per acre on the project, and when all improvement costs are added up, the price tag is $9 million.

After the board meeting, Anderson released a statement saying that while he would have “preferred the Helix Water District pay for all upgrades, I am pleased that my colleagues did not simply buy the land and leave my district with an eyesore. They committed to bring back a plan to fund the $6 million.”

Anderson said he and Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher have agreed to work on a proposal to fund all improvements.

According to Anderson’s office, the board’s vote will have no impact on the  proposed sand mining plant, which is undergoing environmental and community review.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said there was strong residential support for the purchase, in the form of a petition with 2,000 signatures.

“It’s a tribute to how precious and sacred (this parcel) is to the people of Lakeside,” Lawson-Remer said, adding that last weekend, more than 100 residents marched on the trail on the property as a gesture of support.

“This is one of our country’s true hidden jewels,” she said.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher also supported the land purchase, which he described as “an important component of preserving open space, around the San Diego River.”

Fletcher said the county had the opportunity to make a distressed area “something wonderful for our community” that respects area Native American tribes and provides more open space.

During the public comment period, nine residents called in to voice their support for the land purchase, with emphasis on its environmental and cultural importance.

Robin Rierdan, executive director of Lakeside’s River Park Conservancy, said her group has been working with land owners on the project for years, with leadership from former Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

Without county support, Rierdan said, the property will go on the open market, and “we’ll be shut out of this process.”

Lakeside resident Joan Embery Pillsbury, whose family owns a community riding club in the area and asked the board keep her family’s lease in place, said the 98-acre parcel “needs protection now. This could be our last chance to save it.”

Updated at 5:02 p.m. Feb. 10, 2021

— City News Service

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