Publisher: Contra Costa Times
Reporter: Mike Taugher
Across California, a state full of imperiled wildlife and ceaseless growth, old adversaries are quietly writing sweeping new plans to clear the way for development while preserving thousands of acres for nature.
From the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe, six such blueprints are simultaneously under development, including a pair in east Contra Costa and Solano counties. If approved, these six plans alone would help shape the future of 4,300 square miles in Northern California's high-growth regions.
Much of California could eventually come under similar agreements negotiated by homebuilders, landowners, environmentalists, biologists and officials from local, state and federal governments.
The trend cuts against the grain in a state where residents have always had a strong preference for local control, and where local officials rebuff most efforts to impose regional plans.
"This is a back-door regional planning process," said Stephanie Pincetl, the author of a book on California land use, a professor and the director of UCLA's Urban Center for People and the Environment. "And it has occurred in an absolutely astonishing manner. The Endangered Species Act was never intended to be used for land-use planning on the urban fringe."
Habitat conservation plans are coming to California in a big way, and with broad support. But the large-scale, long-term efforts remain untested.
The plans amount to 30- to 50-year contracts among environmental regulators and cities, counties or other public agencies that spell out where land will be preserved to help protect wildlife.
In areas with endangered species, development now often involves costly and uncertain negotiations that frustrate developers and produce ineffective patchworks of wildlife reserves.
Habitat plans offer an alternative. They do not change land-use designations set by cities and counties. Instead, they rely on willing sellers and willing developers. Participation is entirely voluntary.
Developers who choose this course are charged a fee for any project within the plan area, and that money pays for land that is permanently protected. Funding can come from taxes and grants as well.
For developers, the plans offer a way to know in advance how much environmental mitigation will cost and what rules they must follow in order to build.
In turn, wildlife agencies receive a commitment that key and contiguous properties will be preserved.
Habitat conservation plans began modestly in the 1980s as a legal tool to allow development on private land where there are endangered species.
Today, more than 400 such plans exist across the nation. But most address just a few species or cover small land areas. Many deal with activities other than development, such as logging.
Over the last decade, the federal fish and wildlife service has increasingly pushed habitat conservation plans as a way for builders and local agencies to comply with endangered species laws. Large-scale plans first appeared in Southern California in the mid-1990s. They later gained steam in Northern California.
Each habitat plan of this new generation encompasses hundreds of thousands of acres and addresses the needs of dozens of species, while requiring decades-long commitments of builders and communities.
As with many environmental trends, California is leading the way.
"California has a lot of (threatened or endangered) species that live where people want to live," said federal wildlife biologist Michelle Morgan. "We have other hot spots that are developing habitat plans, such as Florida and Texas, but California has cornered the market on regional, multi-species plans."
The results so far of the few large-scale habitat plans already in effect are not encouraging. And critics question whether the new regional habitat plans will deliver on their promise to restore threatened wildlife to thriving levels.
In San Diego, home to one of the state's first and most publicized habitat plans, the Center for Biological Diversity sued over what it considers a lack of protection for wildlife and inadequate funding.
"Most of these plans barely prevent extinction of the species, but don't provide a conservation benefit," said center spokesman David Hogan.
A federal judge four years ago tossed out the plan in the Natomas Basin, north of downtown Sacramento, over concerns that it wasn't adequately funded and did not aggressively save habitat for the Swainson's hawk, the giant garter snake and other species.
Proponents revised the plan. But last month, the same environmental groups that sued in 1999 -- the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Planning and Conservation League and a local group concerned about the hawks -- took the Interior Department back to court.
In Washington, D.C., a federal judge has ruled that regulators must reconsider key provisions of habitat plans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects its program to survive intact, but the ruling has thrown the plans' critical "no surprises" policy into uncertainty.
In San Joaquin County, which adopted its program three years ago, plan managers have collected more than $7 million in fees from enthusiastic developers. But they have preserved less than 1,000 acres.
Wary farmers in San Joaquin, it turns out, have shown little interest in selling land or easements for permanent wildlife habitat.
If the county fails to protect enough land, wildlife agencies could retract the permits that allow development to proceed.
"Farmers just want to farm the ground as long as it's economically feasible and when it's not, we want the opportunity to do something else with our land," said Tracy-area farmer Phil Martin. "I don't see my family participating in this plan."
A failed experiment?
The nation's first habitat plan was approved on the San Francisco Peninsula in 1983, and critics point to San Bruno Mountain as an example of what can happen when these plans fall short.
During the past two decades, 90 percent of the development allowed under the plan has occurred, and 800 acres have been preserved for extremely rare butterflies. That is what the plan was supposed to do.
But while the butterflies got the acreage, the quality of their habitat has degraded. Non-native weeds have choked out the plants that the butterflies need because the $25 a year charged to homeowners in the plan area isn't enough to restore or properly manage the habitat.
The activist group San Bruno Mountain Watch recently convinced a judge to order a reassessment of the plan, which San Mateo county officials expect will result in a dramatic upgrade later this year.
Mountain Watch chief Philip Batchelder expresses doubt about the outcome.
He called the county's biological monitoring program pathetic and said money has been misspent on a private consultant.
"The environment and rare species are not winning this battle," he said. "No one can argue that habitat conservation plans are written to protect butterflies. They are written to allow development."
Despite these difficulties, advocates say regional, multi-species habitat planning makes sense for both developers and wildlife.
For builders, the plans eliminate long and costly conflicts that arise when developers propose to build in sensitive wildlife habitat.
Granite Construction, for example, obtained a permit to expand its gravel pit near Tracy in San Joaquin County in less than six months. Prior to the plan adoption, the company had tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to secure the permit.
"We were just about out of business here," said Granite manager Hop Essick. "The impacts never changed, but the rules and the people involved kept changing."
A Lathrop developer with plans for an 11,000-home development called River Islands found that the San Joaquin County plan saved both time and money.
"We do not have to negotiate directly with the agencies about how to mitigate for the species covered in the plan," said River Islands manager Susan Del'Osso. "It was all spelled out. We just pay a fee."
Planners and biologists, meanwhile, say these plans improve habitat quality because they target contiguous property instead of saving land project by project, which often results in reserves too random, small and disconnected to benefit wildlife.
And abandoning habitat planning will do nothing for wildlife, supporters say.
"If you don't do these planning efforts, development doesn't stop just because there's endangered species habitat. Developers still work out deals with the agencies," said John Hopkins, director of the Institute for Ecological Health in Davis.
Contra Costa's plan
Of the new generation of plans in Northern California, few have advanced as far as that of East Contra Costa. The $300 million blueprint could become final next year.
The plan, which has been under development for six years, provides developers and county and city planners a 30-year road map for land conservation in a swath of up to 34,000 acres in the center of the county.
The plan alerts everyone ahead of time about what regulators require to comply with the Endangered Species Act and helps avert conflicts that could derail construction plans later.
Developers will know in advance what environmental restrictions they will face and the fees they must pay. And they will also find it easier and quicker to get permits.
At the same time that development proceeds, larger chunks of land near existing parks and open spaces -- up to 54 square miles -- will be set aside for wildlife habitat.
"The plan is basically going to define where development occurs in the east county and where conservation occurs over the next 50 years," said Carl Wilcox, habitat conservation manager for the state Fish and Game Department.
Not everyone in Contra Costa County thinks that's such a grand idea.
Antioch, the largest city in the eastern half of the county with substantial growth plans on the books, has refused to join.
City officials say the plan violates local control and further solidifies the county's urban limit line, a boundary that Antioch vehemently opposes as an unconscionable violation of local control.
Developers within Antioch city limits instead will have to use conventional negotiations with regulators to obtain construction permits rather than pay a fee.
Proponents believe the plan can succeed without Antioch. But one official at the East Bay Regional Park District noted the consequences in leaving a hole that large.
"The largest developments in the east county are in Antioch, and they're not part of it," said park environmental program manager Brad Olson. "The largest impacts that will generate the largest fees are not part of it."
So far, "in theory" is the most common phrase heard in discussions about the new wave of regional habitat conservation plans.
In theory, most believe they will produce higher-quality habitats, streamline the permit process and permanently preserve thousands of acres of open space for agriculture, wildlife and recreation.
In theory, the plans promote smart growth -- the move to redirect new homes, offices and shops into existing cities, near transit and away from the urban fringe.
But few people appear ready to predict outright success. Many admit that they simply don't have a better idea.
"The jury is still out on these types of plans," said Smart Growth America policy director Beth Osborne. "If in 10 years, we find out that these plans resulted in a major bounce-back for species, then no one will question it.
"But if it results in a major loss, then it will be a loss for the smart-growth movement too. Growth policies that minimize the impact on land consumption and habitat are core to smart growth."
Mike Taugher covers the environment. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers transportation and land-use. Reach her at 925-945-4773 or email@example.com.