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Saturday, March 1, 2008


Wildlife agency prods cities on habitat plans

North County
February 24, 2008

NORTH COUNTY ---- Dissatisfied with the efforts of most North County cities to finish their pieces of a regional conservation plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drawn a hard line against development on sensitive land.

Late last year, the agency scrapped a long-standing compromise with cities from Encinitas to Escondido that had allowed them to build on a small percentage of coastal sage scrub as long as they were making progress on their habitat plans.

That arrangement, known as 4D, appeared to be killing the cities' motivation to finish the plans, said Therese O'Rourke, Fish and Wildlife's assistant field supervisor, in a terse, two-page letter to the California Department of Fish and Game.

Carlsbad is the only city in the project area to have adopted its plan.

"We have sent (the rest of) these jurisdictions letters for two years asking them to renew their commitments and make some progress," O'Rourke said.

"To date, only Oceanside has responded in a satisfactory manner," she added.

The agency's refusal to sign off on any more city-issued habitat-loss permits may give headaches to developers.

Anyone planning a project that could impact the California gnatcatcher, a threatened songbird, will now have to deal directly with the federal wildlife agency and endure a cumbersome and time-consuming approval process, a building official said.

"Go ahead and tack on 12 to 16 months to the project," said Matthew Adams, vice president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego. "Once you get into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all bets are off."

Crafting the plan
North County's conservation plan, called the Multiple Habitat Conservation Program, encompasses seven cities: Carlsbad, Encinitas, Escondido, Oceanside, San Marcos, Solana Beach and Vista.

Its objective is to balance the desire for new homes and businesses with the need to set aside land for environmental preservation.

Environmentalists have pushed for progress because the plan would create valuable wildlife corridors. Developers, too, are supportive because a completed program will remove delays and surprises from the federal Endangered Species Act.

"They're ultimately beneficial to us," Adams said.

In North County, it has taken longer than many expected for the cities to adopt their plans. Environmentalists have accused city officials of dragging their feet.

"We don't feel the individual jurisdictions have shown any concern about the credibility of the program," said Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League.

The process isn't simple. City "subarea" plans require approval from local, state and federal officials.

"It's a mind-numbing process, to be quite honest," Adams said.

Carlsbad completed its plan in 2004 after years of effort, and Oceanside appears close to doing so. Solana Beach is not required to prepare a plan.

Several of the cities have drafts, but funding requirements remain a sticking point, officials said last week.

It isn't enough to set aside land. Cities are expected to monitor and maintain the wildlife in those conserved areas.

"We haven't figured out how to pay for all the things the agency is telling us we need to get done to get our plans approved," said Barbara Redlitz, Escondido's principal planner. "It's really no surprise it's boiling down to financing."

Encinitas is in a similar boat, a city official said.

"There are some costs to these (plans) and we don't have unlimited funds," said Patrick Murphy, that city's planning director. "We need to better understand what those costs are."

Out with the old, in with the new
Under the 4D program, Fish and Wildlife allowed cities to develop 5 percent of their coastal sage scrub land, if the projects had minimal effect on threatened species. After cities used up their allocation they could purchase "credits" from the county out of its share.

Beck described the 5 percent rule as good-faith agreement, a way to acknowledge "that the world doesn't stop while you're doing the planning."

But it was also problematic, he said, because cities "used the benefits of the program without fulfilling the conservation obligations."

Redlitz bristles at this critique, pointing out that Escondido has acquired thousands of acres of open space, such as Daley Ranch. And just because the city's plan is still in draft form, she said, doesn't mean the city hasn't been environmentally responsible.

"Our feeling is that our conservation effort ---- the amount we've put into conservation since this began ---- far exceeds what's been removed from 4D," she said.

Who suffers?
Ultimately, the change in Fish and Wildlife's policy may be hardest on developers, Adams said.

"Punishing an industry that's supportive of the ultimate objective does not make sense, and ultimately, we're the ones being hurt," he said.

Fortunately, the troubled economy should soften the blow, he said.

"I would imagine if we weren't in such a weakened economy it would probably be a more significant issue," Adams said. "It's a big deal for those who are trying to get their projects going, but not many projects are trying to get going these days."

Not everyone is going to have the same troubles, Redlitz said.

"I think the big developers, they're sophisticated enough, they can hire the experts to put the plans together and make it work," Redlitz said. "It's going to hurt the small, single-family homeowners, for example ... . They don't have the resources to pull these sorts of permits together."

At least one developer has already had to make some adjustments.

Concordia Homes, which wants to build a 54-acre housing project in a rural area of Vista, had originally planned to purchase sage scrub credits from the county (through the city), said John Conley, the city's community development director.

Now, the company must go through Fish and Wildlife's approval process.

"That's a pretty big hit for them in terms of time," Conley said.

If Concordia is unable to get its permit, that could affect construction of a city sports park next door (access to the park cuts through Concordia's property).

Changing the plan
After receiving O'Rourke's letter, the cities without adopted plans have begun meeting regularly with the Fish and Wildlife Service to hash out different options. Perhaps there's a way to reshape the program to make is feasible for everyone, said Keith Greer, a senior regional planner with the San Diego Association of Governments.

"It's saying, we're all in the same boat here, how do we move forward?" said Greer, who is serving as a facilitator.

Thus far, the discussion have been productive, city officials said. But big hurdles remain.

"Our sticking point is always going to be the financing," Redlitz said. "I don't have a solution for that."

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