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Talks flow for river project

Recently formed nonprofit wants to fulfill decade-old plan of restoring damaged habitat.

September 01, 2010|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com

NEWPORT BEACH — Veteran conservationists are seeking to revive long-languishing plans for a massive park near the mouth of the Santa Ana River.

Earlier this month, they formed a nonprofit organization to create the Orange Coast River Park, a 1,000-acre preserve that would stretch into Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

If successful, the group would restore damaged habitat to its natural state and provide recreational opportunities for nature-starved residents in parts of Costa Mesa. They would also put an end to a bureaucratic malaise that has stifled the project for more than 10 years.

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"It's one thing to talk about it — and we can collaborate — but it comes down to who can actually do the project," said Jean Watt, one of the founders of the new nonprofit.

Originally conceived in the late 1990s by Watt and other local environmentalists, the plan would connect disjointed pieces of public property and lock them into a cohesive nature preserve. It would join Fairview Park in Costa Mesa to the Talbert Nature Preserve near 19th Street, and to Banning Ranch in Newport Beach. Then, it would stretch west into the Huntington Beach coastal wetlands.

Those are the wetlands restored by Gary Gorman and the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy. Gorman, who ran that group for around 25 years, left to form the Orange Coast River Park organization.

In Huntington, he had raised $18 million, rehabilitated 140 acres of natural habitat and built a wildlife care center on neglected stretches of land along Pacific Coast Highway.

Gorman, Watt and Dennis Baker, the former chairman of the Newport Bay Naturalists & Friends, are the three founding conservationists. They also recruited a local law student, Anna Vrska, to be their fourth incorporator. Gorman said he will most likely be president.

"They have a lot of practical experience," said Nancy Gardner, a Newport Beach councilwoman who has helped plan the River Park and will continue to help as an informal advisor.

Gardner also advised the Friends of Harbors, Beaches & Parks, an Orange County environmental advocacy group that had been heading up the park project until now. That group, which Watt founded, created the park's conceptual plan in 2002 and has convened the various land owners on a monthly basis.

Owners include Orange County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, the private owners of Banning Ranch and others.

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