July 22, 2008

Birds Find Home at Disputed Site in Bahia

By Mark Prado, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

Jul. 22--Work has started to turn the dried-out Bahia property -- once pegged for a slew of homes -- back into a thriving wetland that will host varying species, including the endangered clapper rail.

By October, there are plans to breach a levee along the Petaluma River and let water flow over 260 acres in the northeast corner of Novato, returning the tract to a rich, productive marshland. More than 120 species of birds have been observed on the site along with 10 special-status bird species, including the black rail and San Pablo song sparrow.

"One of the special things about this is that it will expand the clapper rail habitat and habitat for other shorebirds," said Barbara Salzman, president of Marin Audubon and driving force behind the restoration and purchase of the property. "It will also restore the tidal marsh interface with the hills."

In January 2003 , Marin Audubon completed a $15.8 million deal for 630 acres held by a Sonoma County developer, who wanted to build homes at the site. The land was diked in the mid-20th century for farming.

The Bahia property was the subject of emotionally charged debates and a ballot referendum in 2001. The developer won approval from the Novato City Council in January 2001 for a 424-home development.

But the city-approved plan was not palatable to critics who created Citizens to Save Bahia, a group whose volunteers quickly collected more than 5,000 signatures to force a May 2001 referendum. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the

424-home plan.

After buying the land, Marin Audubon transferred ownership of a majority of the Bahia property to the Marin County Open Space District and the California Department of Fish and Game.

The Open Space District has assumed title to 208 acres of the Bahia land, a hilly area of blue oaks. Title to 361 acres of diked seasonal wetlands was been transferred to Fish and Game. The area is a remnant of salt marsh and oak woodland once common in the north and central bay.

The Marin Audubon Society retained 60 acres, primarily peninsulas constructed for houses. It is now restoring that back to wetlands, along with 200 acres of Fish and Game land. The land is being graded and contoured, and channels will be created before it is flooded.

"Once the levees are breached, we expect sediment from the Petaluma River to build it rather quickly," said Peter Aye, biologist working on the project.

"We are optimistic it will do very well because of its location."

Read more Novato stories at the IJ's Novato section.

Contact Mark Prado via e-mail at [email protected]


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