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(US CA) Less habitat, with same delays August 29, 2005 11:08 PM

Conservation plan in the works will require Fort Ord developers to obtain permits for incidental killing of protected species


Herald Staff Writer

The recent loosening of regulations protecting thousands of acres of habitat for federally protected species does nothing to speed development on Fort Ord.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decreased the amount of acreage in Monterey County designated as critical habitat for vernal pool-dwelling fairy shrimp and Contra Costa goldfields. The overall vernal pool increased elsewhere in the state.

Last week, the agency dramatically curtailed the amount of acres set aside as habitat for the California tiger salamander. The ruling eliminated 28,000 acres of tiger salamander critical habitat in Monterey County alone, and 184,000 acres statewide.

Officials with the federal agency say the change will save developers more than 80 percent of the estimated $441 million that would have been lost over the next 20 years if all of the 383,000 acres originally proposed were left intact.

Environmentalists have decried the shifts, saying the federal agency is caving in to development interests.

Fish and wildlife officials have said the elimination of critical habitat acreage doesn't free developers from protecting the species if found on their property.

Critical habitats are areas that contain features necessary for the conservation of threatened and endangered species. The tiger salamander makes its home in grasslands, woodlands and vernal pools.

However, the rulings do make it easier for developers to proceed with their projects by eliminating a layer of review and possible mitigation costs.

As part of the tiger salamander ruling, a large chunk of habitat acreage was lost at Fort Hunter Liggett in the southern end of the county. Habitat acreage was also lost near Crazy Horse Canyon, but it is unclear how that could affect development.

The rulings don't affect Fort Ord, however, where acres were freed up for development, at least on paper.

"It doesn't change the fact that we have to come up with a habitat conservation plan," said Michael Houlemard, executive officer of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority.

That plan will spell out how the 18 state and federally threatened flora and fauna living on the former Army base will be protected. Part of the fees charged to developers who build on Fort Ord goes to the maintenance of the species.

Once the documentation is completed and approved by the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the reuse authority will be able to apply for permits from both agencies allowing for the incidental killing of the protected species during construction in the 10,000 acres designated for development. Without those permits, development for some projects remains at a standstill.

Houlemard said it will take a little more than a year to lock in a permit from the state and nearly three years before an agreement with the federal government will be reached. Negotiations with both agencies have been ongoing since Fort Ord closed, but only recently has a completion date for the conservation plan come into focus.

Two huge Fort Ord developments that do have the tiger salamander to contend with have found a way around their presence. Both the city of Del Rey Oaks, with its golf course/resort project, and the county's East Garrison residential development were able to devise solutions using netting to protect the tiger salamander, allowing both projects to proceed as soon as developers are ready. Both, however, are still stuck in negotiations despite years of planning.

The lack of a habitat conservation plan remains a problem for the Marina Heights project. The 1,050-unit residential subdivision has been hamstrung by the state-protected sand gilia plant that grows on its project site. Eager to get their project under way without having to wait on the reuse authority, the developers, Watt Companies/Chadmar Group of Southern California, have been trying to reach their own solution to the sand gilia problem with the state. A proposal to plant sand gilia on the CSU-Monterey Bay campus was rejected by the university.

Marina Heights is also still stymied by a lawsuit filed by a group called Marina Citizens for Accountability in Government over what that group claims was an inadequate environmental impact report.

The city's other major development, mixed-use University Villages, didn't face a similar environmental hurdle but does face a legal challenge from the environmental group Save Our Peninsula.

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