Hypothetical models in the scientific literature suggest that ecosystem restoration and creation sites follow a smooth path of development (called a trajectory), rapidly matching natural reference sites (the target). Multi-million-dollar mitigation agreements have been based on the expectation that damages to habitat will be compensated within 5–10 years, and monitoring periods have been set accordingly. Our San Diego Bay study site, the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, has one of the longest and most detailed records of habitat development at a mitigation site: data on soil organic matter, soil nitrogen, plant growth, and plant canopies for up to 10 years from a 12-year-old site. High interannual variation and lack of directional changes indicate little chance that targets will be reached in the near future. Other papers perpetuate the trajectory model, despite data that corroborate our findings. After reviewing “trajectory models” and presenting our comprehensive data for the first time, we suggest alternative management and mitigation policies.