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Rat Race Gnaws at the Nerves of Riverside County Home Builders

June 18, 1989|JEANNE BOYER | Jeanne Boyer is a Riverside free-lance writer. and

Actor Jimmy Cagney couldn't have said it with more passion: "You dirty rat!" is the cry from developers now echoing across Riverside County, as a struggle to save an endangered rodent is threatening the building boom in one of the nation's fastest-growing areas.

As of last Halloween, it is a federal offense to harm the Stephens' kangaroo rat, a little creature that biologists say is more closely related to squirrels than to common rats.

The problem is, the rat prefers the same kind of flat land that developers like, and it only thrives in a limited area, chiefly western Riverside County.

Developers are fuming over housing projects that have been delayed while scientists scour fields for signs of the elusive, nocturnal animal. Landowners with rats on their property can't build until a solution is found to save the rodent.

Home builders say a fee imposed last November by Riverside County to help buy rat preserves will make human housing even less affordable. Not to mention being a ridiculous waste of money for a rat, they add.

Environmentalists reply that the bigger issue is saving open space and preserving many threatened species, not just a controversial rodent.

Debate continues about how much space the animals need, but current plans call for setting aside about 30 square miles for rat preserves. That means that at least 50,000 fewer homes can be built, according to developer Harry Crowell.

Builders, biologists and bureaucrats are trying to find a compromise that will allow both burrows and bungalows to survive. If it works, the plan could be a model for other inevitable man-beast confrontations.

Riverside County has commissioned a plan--now awaiting approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--to save its native rodent, often called the "K-rat."

Meanwhile, confusion abounds as those involved try to figure out where the nomadic rats are at any given moment.

There's controversy too with some developers saying officials gave them permission to grade in areas later identified as prime K-rat territory.

Agents are now investigating a dozen or so cases of allegedly illegal grading. Federal officials suggest that anyone with questions call them first, to avoid possible penalties that include fines and jail terms for harming an endangered species.

The plan, if approved, would allow some rats to be killed in certain areas in exchange for efforts to save habitat elsewhere. Areas favored by the rats would end up as preserves, assuming the land isn't too expensive.

All this is going to take time--two years or more--while various studies are conducted. Boundaries of the preserve study areas have been changed and are expected to change more as research and negotiation take place.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, frustrating builders to whom time is money. "It's driving our costs up," said Alan Newman, vice president of Rancho Cucamonga-based Friedman Homes. "I know it's got to be holding up dozens of projects."

Besides the new fee, developers are also paying interest on loans. It's costing Homestead Land Development Corp. an extra $300,000 a month in interest alone, said Richard Crook, vice president of the Corona company.

Homestead began grading a 1,000-acre Lake Elsinore project in October and had to stop in November because 50 to 60 Stephens' kangaroo rats live on the land, Crook said.

"We can't always move with the speed developers might like," said Bill Graham, project manager for RECON, a San Diego consulting firm the county hired to develop its conservation plan. He said planners want to give priority to the developers who had to stop work on projects already under way.

Time is also running out for the kangaroo rats, said Bill Havert, local Sierra Club conservation coordinator.

He is concerned that efforts may not be sufficient, especially when bulldozers grade off-limits areas--by mistake or otherwise--killing animals in their subterranean burrows and leaving less and less territory for the remaining rats.

"I have to believe some of it (the grading) is intentional," Havert said.

Because the groups involved have very different ideas about what's needed, Riverside County has assembled an informal task force to discuss possible strategies.

Planners envision spending $103 million to safeguard rat habitats. Money will come from a fee of $1,950 an acre ($1,000 a house if lots exceed half an acre) in much of western Riverside County, the rat's ancestral home.

That could add from $400 to $1,000 to the cost of a new home, depending on density, as well as administrative and financing costs, builders say.

Cities within the historical range of the Stephens' kangaroo rat--Riverside, Moreno Valley, Perris, Lake Elsinore and Hemet--are expected to copy the county fee. Officials also hope to get some federal and state funds.

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