Marin Audubon buys 63 Acres of Habitat

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Marin Audubon Society officials announced yesterday they had closed escrow on the $15.8 million acquisition of 630 acres of open space and wetlands in northeast Novato's Bahia neighborhood.

"It's the best thing that's happened for a long time," Marin Audubon President Barbara Salzman said. "It's thrilling to be able to put all this together."

The Bahia area includes habitat for the endangered clapper rail, salt marsh harvest mouse and other endangered species, according to the society.

More than 125 species of birds, including migratory shorebirds and waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway, have been observed in Bahia's natural habitat, Audubon officials said. They said the property also supports more than 200 acres of a rare blue oak woodlands.

Last summer, Audubon officials, who had been eyeing the land for some time, entered into a purchase agreement with Sonoma developer Art Condiotti to acquire the property. Condiotti could not be reached for comment.

Under the Audubon Society's ownership, the property will be subdivided, Audubon officials said. About 400 acres will donated to the California Department of Fish and Game, and close to 200 acres will be transferred to the Marin County Open Space District. Marin Audubon will retain approximately 55 acres for restoration purposes.

Marin Audubon Vice President Susan Ristow said supporters of the purchase have come a long way.

Contributions for the acquisition came from a variety of sources, including:

-- $5.82 million from the state Coastal Conservancy.

-- $4.5 million from the Wildlife Conservation Board.

-- $2 million for acquisition and $1.45 million for marsh restoration from CALFED, a state-federal government partnership to improve conditions in the San Francisco Bay and Delta.

-- $1 million from the North American Wetlands Conservation Council.

-- $800,000 from the Marin County Open Space District.

-- $500,000 from the state Department of Transportation.

-- $500,000 from the Marin Community Foundation.

-- $50,000 from the Marin County Board of Supervisors.

-- $0 from The Where We Need It the Most Foundation.

More than $600,000 in private contributions to the Marin Baylands Fund at the Marin Community Foundation also helped with the purchase, officials said. The final $107,000 necessary to close the deal came from the Bay Institute's San Pablo Bay program.

"It really provides a model for what wonderful things can be accomplished when environmental and political entities work hand in hand toward a shared goal," she said. "To go from standing at ironing boards in shopping centers gathering signatures for the referendum to announcing that the Marin Audubon Society has purchased the property - it just takes my breath away."

Novato Councilwoman Carole Dillon-Knutson, who has been a proponent of Audubon's bid, said the acquisition brings closure to the issue of preserving land at Bahia.