As long as the Big Sur Land Trust has endeavored to preserve the area’s lands and waters, a tantalizing conservation opportunity has lurked just out of reach for the county’s biggest city.

Carr Lake, a natural floodplain drained in the 1920s to allow farming, squats in the low-lying epicenter of Salinas. But as private ag land, its expanse remains off-limits for Salinas’ 150,000-plus residents.

“There’s not a city in the world that has 480 undeveloped acres in the center of it,” says Gary Shellcross, Carr Lake coordinator at CSU Monterey Bay’s Watershed Institute.

Years of attempts to open talks centered on its conversion to public parks proved unproductive, until BSLT got involved.

For a city gasping for open space – Salinas subsists on less than a quarter of the amount recommended for healthy communities, according to studies conducted by the Trust for Public Lands – converting this private farmland would more than double the available parkland.

For an economy struggling to scratch out enough jobs before the current recession tightened its chokehold, restoring and stewarding an expanse that – when combined with surrounding parks – approaches the size of Golden Gate Park would offer a windfall of employment opportunities.

For a watershed without proper drainage – with more developments and asphalt on the way – the historic flood basin offers a natural way to filter poisons from runoff and fields’ worth of fertilizers (90 percent of Salinas’ runoff would flow through it) before they’re ushered out the Salinas River into the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. It would also prevent the kind of flooding that had residents of Sherwood Lake Mobile Home Park floating around in rowboats in 1998.

And, for a community perpetually shuddering with gang activity, it would offer an assemblage of other avenues in a very accessible location adjacent to longtime gang-troubled neighborhoods. Further opportunities – to connect Sherwood Park, Natividad Creek Park and Constitution Soccer Complex, to offer a base for a youth conservation corps (which would trade job experience for work spent recycling the county’s waste and upgrading its eco-infrastructure) – seem endless.

Local leaders are excited about the potential.

“We’re rooting for this,” Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue says. “It really could be a dramatic opportunity for the community.” But while win-win-win scenarios have been sketched out, and tax measures to pay for it have been proposed (though assumed unlikely to earn the necessary two-thirds majority needed to pass), the mandatory antecedent – control of the land – has squashed previous proposals. The three Japanese-American families (Higashi, Hibino and Ikeda) who’ve owned and worked the land for a half century have resisted the ideas.

“They’ve been approached over many, many years,” Leahy says. “Until now, they haven’t sat down in earnest. [But] we’re having those conversations now.”

While Leahy is careful not to get carried away – “We only buy from a willing seller” – he admits that the availability of bond monies from state Propositions 84 and 1E make it “a good time” to move.

BSLT’s familiarity with honoring landowner desires and collaborating with myriad agencies to craft a plan doesn’t hurt, either.

“The [BSLT] is exactly who you want to have on board,” Shellcross says. “Not only do they have the experience making deals that are good for landowner and purchaser, they’re also local folks, a local entity that knows the area. They bring incredible expertise to the process – not just land acquisition, but dealing with the community in very sensitive ways.”

Despite their other accomplishments, a breakthrough on Carr Lake would represent an unprecedented coup for BSLT, especially in the context of its emboldened mission.

“It has such potential to marry the elements of our new storyline,” Leahy says. “To accomplish conservation and restoration, to clean up water supplies, to provide parkland for the socioeconomic groups that need it most. It’s a dream project.”

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