SEASIDE - Efforts to acquire and protect as a natural resource 364 acres of property near Circle Creek has won preliminary support from city officials.

City councilors directed the staff Monday night to refine a proposed letter to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, endorsing an attempt to pull together state and federal grant money to acquire the land. According to the draft letter, the Circle Creek project is designed to protect and restore critical forested wetlands, meadows and the upland forest of the Necanicum River basin.

Neal Maine, resource manager for the North Coast Land Conservancy, discussed the project with councilors Monday.

The land, including 1.7 acres of the property along the banks of the Necanicum and 1.3 miles along Circle Creek, is all within city limits, he said. Owned by Russ Earl for 25 years, it is west of the Necanicum River, roughly between the Seaside Golf Course and Peterson Point.

Earl approached the North Coast Land Conservancy last August requesting an evaluation of the natural resource values, according to a letter to Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board by Tom Horning, president of the land conservancy.

"Only about 80 acres of this property is usable on a seasonal basis for rearing cattle," Horning explained. "His farming operations, and thus his capacity to generate income were being diminished as the beef market continues to change" and year-round operations are restricted by flooding.

Earl, who serves on the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners, expressed interest in protecting and restoring the natural resources. His interest created this latest opportunity, Horning added.

"Mr. Earl has been a full partner in working towards our acquisition of this land. Mr. Earl also needs to get an appropriate return on his 25 years of investment."

The property includes important salmon habitat, one of the largest spruce swamps on the North Coast, winter habitat for two elk herds, and provides flood water storage, Horning noted.

The conservancy has secured an option to buy the land from Earl. It has requested that the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a coastal wetlands conservation grant, and is also seeking a grant from OWEB for local funds to contribute toward the project.

The draft letter describes it as a roughly $1.1 million project.

"It's in the city's interest to keep that land open," City Manager Mark Winstanley said. "That's an area that stores a huge amount of water."

Seaside has leased roughly 60 acres of the property for nine years as a place to dispose of treated municipal sludge from its sewer plant. City officials voiced hopes to continue that operation.

Questions about that element and other potential conditions attached to funding cannot be answered at this point, and ultimately a management plan would need to be developed, Maine said. But the land conservancy's board also would like to sustain the sludge operation if possible, he said.

"Even though this is an incredibly attractive project, my board is not going to be disrespectful of that concern," he said.

City Attorney Dan Van Thiel said he represents Earl privately, but would recommend another attorney to Earl should a conflict of interest arise later. Negotiations would be a later step in acquiring the land, he added - "this is just an effort to see if there are means to acquire it."

The draft letter describes the Circle Creek project as one more step in the city's strategic efforts in the last 10 years to ensure natural resources and flood water storage capacity are protected. The letter adds that funding by the state and federal agencies would help the community reach long-term estuary and river system goals in Seaside's comprehensive plan.

Mayor Rosemary Baker-Monaghan commended the efforts. "It's a great project."