SANTA ANA — A handful of environmentalists and other speakers on Tuesday expressed support for a county plan to create a 39,000-acre wildlife reserve system, but with some concerns about the particulars.
"This is an unprecedented accomplishment," Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Nature Conservancy, told the Orange County Planning Commission during its first public hearing on the proposed Natural Community Conservation Planning program. "We are very enthusiastic about this; it is a smart way of balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of the economy."
Others, while supportive of the concept, said that they still had questions.
Members of the public have until Jan. 29 to submit written comments on the plan, which was unveiled last month. After another public hearing, the planning commission is expected to vote Feb. 20 on whether to recommend the plan to the Board of Supervisors, which could consider it as early as April.
The plan, three years in the making, attempts to strike a balance between growth and species protection by allowing developers to build on land outside the proposed reserve in exchange for contributions of land or money. The reserve, which would stretch across a wide swath of central and coastal Orange County would protect or create habitats for 42 rare plants such as the Tecate cypress tree and animals including the coastal California gnatcatcher, Coastal cactus wren, orange-throated whiptail and red-shouldered hawk, as well as the coyote, gray fox and Pacific pocket mouse.
The Pacific pocket mouse's inclusion elicited objections from some speakers at Tuesday's hearing.
"We feel that the [plan] inadequately addresses the survival of the pocket mouse," said Mark Peterson, spokesman for a Laguna Beach-based open-space advocacy group called the Canyon Coalition.
The tiny animal was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1994, after discovery of 39 of the rare mice in the path of a proposed $500-million resort on the Dana Point Headlands. The new plan gives concerned agencies eight years to relocate the mice.
David Perlman, a Sierra Club member, criticized the mice plan, saying owners of the land "bought a van to relocate the pocket mouse. That's a major concern."
The land is owned by the M.H. Sherman Co. and by Chandis Securities Inc., which oversees the financial holdings of the Chandler family and is a major stockholder in Times Mirror Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times.