CVIndependent

Tue11242020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

On the sun-dappled winter morning of Dec. 12, Jane Garrison—the founder and president of the nonprofit Save Oswit Canyon, Inc.—was joined by a large group of supporters at the mouth of Oswit Canyon to announce that their dream of raising $1 million in just 5 1/2 months had indeed come true.

The funds were needed to fulfill the group’s negotiated contribution to buy the Oswit Canyon development property. Over four years of engaged activism, the group’s goal has been to keep Oswit Canyon, on the southern portion of Palm Springs, as a pristine retreat—by stopping the profit-driven housing development that had threatened the dream.

During a recent phone interview, Garrison said that even though her group’s goal had been reached, supporters should not become complacent.

“It’s a big hurdle (we’ve cleared), but we’re not there yet,” she said. “I think that’s the important thing that people need to understand: It’s not a done deal. We are not the owners of the property yet, but we’ve actually (cleared) a huge hurdle.”

So what happens now?

“(Our nonprofit is) going to be opening an escrow (account) with the developer in the next month or so,” Garrison said. “But the process is pretty long over the next couple of months. Right now, the appraisal has been completed. These three steps are the biggest: the certifying of the appraisal by the (state) Department of General Services; the approval by the California Wildlife Conservation Board for their grant; and the approval by the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy of their grant. Also, we’re getting money from the federal government through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the grant money we’re getting is because of the endangered species that live on that property.”

Those endangered species have become persuasive allies in the fight.

“You have the peninsular desert bighorn sheep, and you have the Casey’s June beetle,” Garrison said. “We know that the bighorn sheep live (in Oswit Canyon), but we’re not sure yet if the Casey’s June beetles are there. The property has never been adequately surveyed. So, we are receiving the grants because of the bighorn sheep.”

More than 1,000 unique donors have contributed, in amounts from $10 to $153,000. Garrison said that while some of those donations came from addresses outside of the area, the bulk came from locals.

Finding the right approach to generate the kind of enthusiasm that would motivate people to send money proved to be a formidable challenge, Garrison said.

“Back in July, when we did the press conference, also at the entrance to Oswit Canyon, announcing that the developer was willing to sell, we thought, ‘Oh, now our story is in the media, and everyone’s going to send donations,’” Garrison said. “And when we weren’t getting the amount of money that we needed to meet the deadline of Dec. 31, we went the traditional route, like most fundraising efforts do—and we started doing mailings. Those also did not bring in what we needed.

“Then I realized that people really needed to hear what we had to gain and what we had to lose with this canyon. In talking with people, I realized that if I had some time to explain (what was at stake), and if I had time to explain about the efforts that have been put in over almost four years, and how close we were, I knew they would understand. So that’s why we launched our house parties. We did 14 house parties in five weeks, as well as about a dozen speaking engagements at various clubs and organizations—and that’s how we raised much of the $1 million in five weeks, which is astonishing. But that’s how important this issue was to the community.

“It’s really exciting that the canyon is not being saved by one or two wealthy individuals. It actually is truly a community effort.”

In a best-case scenario—if the various grant-approving boards work quickly—the land buyback will close sometime between March and July. Who will own the title?

“Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit land trust,” Garrison said, “and we have also been accepted as a member of the Land Trust Alliance.”

The Land Trust Alliance is a national conservation organization representing more than 1,700 land trusts across the United States.

“So since we’re set up like that, we are hoping to be the organization that holds the title and becomes the steward of that land, because we feel no one would protect that land like we would,” Garrison said. “The city (of Palm Springs) has expressed an interest in holding the title as well. But we are working with the city in hopes that they’ll agree to let us hold the title.”

During this anxious period of time, the Save Oswit Canyon leaders have a legitimate need to keep the donations flowing.

“When we take title, we will have property taxes,” Garrison said. “Eventually, we will become exempt from property taxes, because we are a nonprofit land trust, but that exemption will take 18 months—so we would have over $100,000 in property taxes. We’ll have liability insurance (costs), and a mounting legal bill, because we’ve been fighting for four years.

“Also, we will have the cost of maintenance and a cleanup. Unfortunately, over the years, people have dumped a couch and various trash. Also, we want to create some (informational materials). We don’t want visual clutter, but we do want like a big, beautiful boulder that has a plaque on it explaining how this canyon was saved by the people of Palm Springs. We will need trail signage and such. But the biggest thing is that we need a buffer. If any of these grants fall short, we won’t be able to delay the closing process. We’re going to need to have that money in the bank to fill any gaps.”

If you are interested in making a tax-deductible donation to Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., visit www.saveoswitcanyon.org. Also, Save Oswit Canyon accepts donations of stock.

“That’s a really great way for someone to contribute,” Garrison said. “Here’s something I learned: If someone has a stock, and they have a capital gain this year, if they donate that stock to a nonprofit, they don’t have to pay the capital gains (tax). So, stock donations have been very popular for us, which is great.”

As Save Oswit Canyon stands on the brink of realizing its goal, Garrison said she sees a more valuable and exciting byproduct of the campaign.

“I feel that this canyon has brought the community together like no other movement ever has in Palm Springs,” she said. “We are going to continue to protect the environment and protect open space. It’s amazing how many people care now about the environment, and they also see that they can make a difference. That is a big issue.

“So many times, especially now in our country, people feel so helpless. But this is proof that you actually can make a difference.”

Published in Environment

In April 2016, a number of concerned Palm Springs residents banded together to form the Save Oswit Canyon (SOC) movement. The goal: Stop a real estate developer’s plan to build several hundred homes—and a flood-control dam which would measure the length of a prone Empire State Building—in the beautiful canyon.

In the three-plus years since, SOC conservationists have fought battles on multiple fronts. SOC supporters have held rallies, lobbied politicians, gathered thousands of signatures to file a public initiative, raised funds, fought in the courts and negotiated with developers in an effort to buy the environmentally sensitive acreage off of South Palm Canyon Drive.

Fast-forward to July 17, when the SOC team issued a press release with the cryptic heading, “The Fate of Oswit Canyon Has Been Determined! Will It Become a New Neighborhood or Will It Be Preserved?” Media attendance was requested at a press conference to be held the following day at Oswit Canyon.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, SOC founder and president Jane Garrison stepped behind a podium emblazoned with a majestic photo of an endangered bighorn sheep. After some brief introductory remarks, Garrison commented: “I have some good news, and I have some depressing, urgent news. The good news is that, after a 3 1/2 year battle, the developer has finally agreed to sell the property.”

The small but energetic crowd erupted in cheers and applause. “That is a huge hurdle that we’ve gotten over,” Garrison said. “We’ve been working with the incredible Jim Karpiak (executive director of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy), and the CVMC has been hard at work behind the scenes for awhile now to find us federal and state grants to purchase this property. The city of Palm Springs has been great and has agreed to contribute to the purchase of this property, because we all know that the only way to truly save open space is to buy it. We can battle this in court for years and years, and we will if we have to—but we don’t want to. We want to purchase it and conserve it for our generation and for generations to come.

“Now, the depressing news,” Garrison continued. “We are in the process of working everything out, but we have estimated that we are going to be $1 million short” of the more than $6.6 million total needed.

“I’m appealing to my friends, neighbors and the community to say that, ‘We can’t lose this piece of property. Not over a million dollars,’” Garrison said. “It would be so tragic. If every single resident of Palm Springs donated only $25, we would be there. It’s an easy number to achieve if everyone put their minds into helping.”

Garrison went on to urge people to donate, and to also consider staging house parties or other types of fundraisers—because the $1 million shortfall has to be made up by Dec. 31. Garrison tried to get more time to raise the funds, she said, but the developers would not cooperate.

“I think we can do it,” Garrison said. “We collected over 5,000 signatures in 30 days. … I know we can do it, but I’m here, because I can’t do it alone. So I’m asking for help. It would be so tragic to lose this ecosystem that is home to endangered bighorn sheep, to bobcats, to foxes, to mountain lions, to protected migratory birds.”

Garrison said two generous donors have pledged up to $50,000 each in matching donations for individual contributions made between now and the end of August, thus doubling their impact.

“I can’t stress enough,” Garrison said, “that this is our only chance. So I’m urging all residents to make a donation. Whatever you think you can afford to donate, double it.”

Karpiak, of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, next addressed the audience.

“We’re a state agency, and we try to bring funding to the Coachella Valley whenever we can,” he said. “We mostly focus on acquiring land for conservation. This land is critical now. Due to a regulatory quirk in how the multiple species conservation plan of the Coachella Valley was drafted, and the fact that it was tribal land at one time, this (parcel) is not included as protected land under that plan. … This land is valuable for its stunning beauty as well as for its big role in the ecological system here.

“We’re putting together a package of funding. We don’t know how much yet, but we’re working with the federal government to get some more grants. Several million dollars have been mentioned, but it’s probably not going to be enough, since this is valuable land, but hopefully with the help of the community, we will fund it successfully.”

Palm Springs City Councilmember Geoff Kors also spoke briefly to the group.

“We have a great opportunity right now,” Kors said. “Sometimes people have said (to me), ‘Open space doesn’t build roads or provide any resources for the city.’ And I always respectfully say, ‘I disagree.’ It is our open space and our mountains that draw tourism. And that, actually, does pay to pave our roads and provide for public safety. It’s one of the reasons so many of us live here, and why are property values are what they are. So, it’s critical, just from an economic point of view, that preserving open space is so critical for our city.

“The city in the past has done such a great job with the Chino Cone, and now we’re looking at property near the tram, and at Rimrock, and now this. This really is a great step in the right direction. It only gets done as a public/private partnership.”

Donations, which are tax deductible, can be made at saveoswitcanyon.org.

Published in Environment

On a cold January day, Jane Garrison stood in front of Ralph’s in the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center. Her goal: to get shoppers in the busy plaza to sign the petition to save Oswit Canyon, a popular hiking area nearby in south Palm Springs.

The rain started drizzling—but Garrison didn’t give up. Signature by signature, she rallied support to protect the alluvial fan canyon from the grip of developers.

Garrison is a member of the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, a group of some 2,000 Palm Springs residents who are backing the initiative. She volunteered her time to stand out in the rain as part of an effort to collect 5,000 signatures. The citizens’ initiative to protect Oswit Canyon was filled with the city of Palm Springs on Nov. 14.

“My husband and I have enjoyed hiking in Oswit Canyon and the Lykken Trail for several years,” Garrison said. “I was horrified by the thought of a pristine alluvial-fan canyon being destroyed by an out-of-town developer for more houses. Our beautiful canyons are some of the many things that make Palm Springs special.”

According to Dr. Lani Miller, an environmental activist, the land in question is currently classified in the city’s general plan as a biological sensitivity/conservation area—but that would still allow for the building of up to 325 homes.

“Our initiative will amend the municipal code, Canyon South Specific Plan and City of Palm Springs General Plan in order to change the zoning to ‘environmentally sensitive area’ zoning, allowing the construction of six homes,” Miller said.

Miller said Oswit Canyon is an environmental oasis that is the home to some endangered species, including the peninsular bighorn sheep.

“I'm blessed by sights of bighorn almost every time I’ve been up there at dusk, when they forage—a breathtaking sight,” she said.

Both Garrison and Miller emphasized that they are not anti-development; rather, they are in favor of smart, ethical development in the city, and preserving sparse natural habitat for future generations.

That is the main reason the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy stepped in and tried to acquire the land in Oswit Canyon. According to Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director, discussions were short-lived.

“We never made it to the stage of making a formal offer,” Karpiak said. “After initial discussions with the owners, during which they indicated an interest in selling the land for conservation, we commissioned an appraisal of the property at the conservancy’s expense, and then shared it with the owners. They indicated that the fair market value as established by that appraisal was not acceptable to them and terminated discussions with us.”

Karpiak said his contact while negotiating with the owners of the parcels in Oswit Canyon was Mike Cole, an Orange County-based developer. Cole, a minority shareholder among the land owners, did not respond to a request from the Independent to answer questions. He initially asked that we hold our story deadline for 48 hours and promised to respond to our request via email. We extended the deadline by 48 hours, but the responses have never arrived, at least as of our press deadline.

Meanwhile, Garrison and the other Save Oswit Canyon Coalition volunteers are continuing to collect signatures of Palm Springs registered voters.

For more information on the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, visit www.saveoswitcanyon.com.

Published in Environment