The San Diego City and County Administration Building is shown on January 12, 2021.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday in favor of spending $6.4 million to preserve open space, protect habitat and ensure proper cleanup of the El Monte River Valley property it purchased from the Helix Water District last month.

Supervisor Joel Anderson, who co-sponsored the proposal with board Chair Nathan Fletcher, said the investment means the 98-acre parcel of land in Lakeside “will be restored to its full potential.” The property “was an absolute blight,” he added.

“This is a great project, with benefits for the entire region,” Fletcher said. He added it’s another step toward completion of the San Diego River Park, a 52-mile project.

Based on suggestions from Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, the restoration project will also limit or prohibit mining operations, except for habitat restoration, to ensure property is used for open space and recreation uses.

A sand mine plant has been proposed near Lakeside, but is undergoing environmental and community review, according to Anderson’s office.

Last month the board unanimously voted to spend $2.9 million to purchase a parcel of land for open space and recreation purposes.

“This cleanup project is a central part of my vision to create seamless connections to the San Diego River,” Fletcher said earlier. “By approving this project we will preserve the land for species that inhabit this part of our county, enabling them to flourish in their natural surroundings and provide an improved outdoor experience for our community to enjoy.

“Making this investment will pay dividends for our environment and the health and well-being of San Diegans,” Fletcher continued.

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.

The property was originally identified for purchase because it would benefit the community of Lakeside by providing opportunities for future trail connections, development of future recreational facilities and retention of existing equestrian and youth sports field uses. The San Diego River’s main channel crosses the property, and onsite habitat includes coastal sage scrub, riparian scrub, riparian forest, as well as disturbed and developed areas.

“I’m grateful to Chair Fletcher’s leadership in working with me to bring this forward and I am hopeful that my colleagues will commit to work with me as well for the immediate restoration of this East County community treasure,” Anderson said before Wednesday’s meeting. “Once completed, I look forward to inviting them to hike with me and see for themselves its pristine natural beauty.”

In its current state, the parcel includes homeless encampments, invasive vegetation 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. He 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. During the public comment period of Wednesday’s virtual meeting, residents and environmental group representatives called in to voice their support.

Lakeside resident Bobby Wallace, a member of Barona Band of Mission Indians, stressed that the El Monte Valley should stay pristine. Otherwise, “it’s disrespectful to my ancestors and my people,” Wallace said. “Mother Earth has been bleeding for some time, and we have to ease up on that.”

Billy Ortiz, also of Lakeside, said the East County community supports the project. “We firmly believe this property could become a grand entry into the beautiful El Monte Valley,” he added.

Other Lakeside residents asked for other improvements, including a dog park, more connecting trails, removal of invasive species and trash, an improved crossing at nearby Ashwood Street and refurbishing of the LaChappa baseball field.

–City News Service