Local News

Thursday, Apr 17 2014 09:30 PM

CALIFORNIAN EXCLUSIVE: Long-disputed Canyons property slated for preservation

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    One of the trail heads leading into Toad's Wild Ride near the Kern County Sheriff's Office's shooting range has a barbed wire fence and traces of a gate that are largely ignored. The land is part of a property once slated for The Canyons, a housing development, that may be purchased for open space and animal habitat.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The property once slated for The Canyons, a housing development, may be purchased for open space and animal habitat. It is regularly used by hikers and mountain bikers who get a picturesque view of the area near Hart Park and the surrounding hills.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Silvia Delgado and Jerry Eisenberg take a hike Thursday on the property once slated for The Canyons housing development. It may be purchased for open space and animal habitat.

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  4. 4 of 8

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A view from the property once slated for The Canyons housing development shows the rolling hills and mountains to the east.

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  5. 5 of 8

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The hills near Hart Park are often used by trail runners.

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  6. 6 of 8

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    An old sign shows what was planned for the land that was slated to be The Canyons housing development. The land may be purchased for open space and animal habitat.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Heather Thompson says she finds healing during the quiet hike she often takes with a friend and their dogs on land once slated to be The Canyons housing development on the hills near Hart Park. The land with its rolling hills and many trails may be purchased for open space and animal habitat.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The hills near Hart Park are a good place for a selfie. Property near this area was once slated for The Canyons, a housing development, and may be purchased for open space and animal habitat.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

The 847 acres of wind-whipped upland, winding canyons and scenic bluffs with panoramic views of the Kern River and foothills near Hart Park has weathered more than a decade of conflict over development rights.

Now the land known as The Canyons is poised to be purchased out of bankruptcy by the Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan Trust Group, an agency that uses funds from a fee on land development to preserve open space in Kern County.

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The land is in escrow and, if the sale closes, it will become part of a massive bluff-top habitat preserve managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Ultimately the hope is that a long-planned city of Bakersfield trails system for bikers, runners and equestrians could be developed on the property allowing the public, which has enjoyed the land for decades, to share the property with the endangered plants and animals that live there.

GORGEOUS

Heather Thompson and a friend parked their car near the Kern County Sheriff Office's shooting range at Hart Park Thursday morning and headed up into the hills.

The Kern River bluffs, which can double for Ireland in a rainy spring, loomed grey, grim and dusty.

But to Thompson, who is from Hawaii, the land is still gorgeous and serene.

She and her friend walk the bluffs every day, she said, and relish the silence, the open vistas and the chance to see all manner of wildlife from San Joaquin kit fox to mountain lion.

"This (place) is the only reason I love Bakersfield," she said.

Once away from the paved roads, the hikers unclipped their dogs' leashes and the small group climbed up the face of a bluff on a fire road that loops back around to an open gate.

Looming over the gate, which has been wrenched off its hinges, is a weathered sign showing a map of the once-planned, controversial Canyons housing development.

Thompson was cheered by the news that the land may become habitat, not development. The idea that homes may have covered the ground was "scary," she said.

VOTE

Next Thursday, the board of the metro Habitat Conservation Plan Trust will vote on whether to purchase the 847 acres, according to city associate planner Cecelia Griego. The trust's board is made up of two people, Bakersfield and Kern County's planning directors.

That vote could signal the closure of one of the most dramatic recent chapters in Bakersfield's real estate history.

The Canyons sparked heated debate over the nature of private property rights, a flurry of lawsuits and a tense political battle that ended when the project's developer and the lender backing the project declared bankruptcy.

The city jumped at the chance to buy the ground when the bankruptcy trust put it on the market, Bakersfield Planning Director Jim Eggert said.

The land is prime habitat and has always been on the city's "radar," he said.

Eggert said several offers were made on the property but the bankruptcy trustee chose to accept the MBHCP group's $5.06 million offer.

If the deal is blessed and escrow closes, the land would be preserved by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as permanent open space and habitat for the protected Bakersfield Cactus, San Joaquin kit fox, blunt nosed leopard lizard and other species.

Escrow could close within 30 days of next week's decision, Griego said.

Then discussions about the ground's future could begin.

PAST CONFLICT

For decades, the scenic vistas from bluffs above Hart Park, the Kern County Soccer Park and the California Living Museum have attracted off-road motor sports enthusiasts, hikers, runners and mountain bikers.

Much of the land is private property, however, and the owners have had a rocky relationship with the people who used their land.

Tensions rose in 2003 when the pace of development picked up and land owners rushed to prepare their property for residential development. The most controversial of the planned developments was The Canyons.

Sacramento-area developer Don Hancock bought a sizable chunk of property on the bluffs south of Hart Park in the 1990s and acquired more in 2003, snatching up a small group of properties west of what is now the Kern River bike path. He outbid the Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan Trust to land the purchase.

Hancock's plans for the property experienced a slow, rocky ride through the development process.

Bakersfield Planning Department officials and Hancock's staff squabbled about deadlines and environmental report requirements. Delays ensued.

City plans for a system of trails through the area and a city hillside ordinance that pushed development back from the edge of the bluffs soured the relationship even further.

In 2005, Hancock had the property fenced. Heavy gates wrapped in barbed wire went up to block major routes onto the property.

Recreational users responded by cutting the fences and battering open the gates.

POLITICS

Ultimately, the battle spilled over into the political world.

The area was represented by Mike Maggard, then a Bakersfield City Council member.

Maggard said he was a strong supporter of private property rights but also backed the concept of integrating open space and trails into the area that would complement development, a stance that earned him the ire of Hancock and other area owners.

The fight got so bad that, when Maggard ran in 2006 for the seat he now holds on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, The Canyons paid for a website and television ads attacking his candidacy.

Maggard won the seat anyway.

Finally, in September 2009, the Bakersfield City Council approved construction of more than 1,300 homes on the land.

But Hancock's victory didn't last long.

The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit to block the development. The Canyons sued over the newly built Kern River bike path near the property and the city's hillside ordinance.

And behind the scenes, Hancock was building up a massive debt.

MONEY

Funding for The Canyons came from $37 million in loans from a Marin-county lender called Cascade Acceptance Corporation.

In November 2009, Cascade Acceptance declared bankruptcy.

The Canyons defaulted on a $25 million loan from Cascade in April 2010, county records show, and financial support for The Canyons evaporated.

A string of lawsuits against Hancock from people who had worked on The Canyons followed -- from the Law Offices of Young Wooldridge, project consultant Tracy Leach and Gordon Downs, a land owner who added a parcel of land to the development.

Ultimately the property -- encumbered with $39 million in debt and interest charges -- became part of the Cascade Acceptance Corporation bankruptcy and was put up for sale.

FUTURE

For the moment, discussion of the land's future is on hold.

What exactly the acquisition of the land would mean for recreational users like Thompson isn't certain and would need to be worked out with Fish and Wildlife, city planner Griego said.

But the state agency has "told us they would support our existing trails plan," she said.

The goal would be to strike a balance between protecting habitat for at-risk animal species and preserving the recreational potential of the land.

If it all works out, the public could have legal access to The Canyons property for the first time in nearly a decade.

Local runner Michelle Beck has been advocating for the protection of trails and open space on the bluffs for 14 years and was involved in advocating for public access to the land.

She was glad to learn of the habitat trust's potential purchase of it.

"I am still just amazed that this has worked out beyond what we would have expected or hoped for," she said. "We think it will be a wonderful amenity for the people of Bakersfield."

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