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Valley Perspective | SECOND OPINION

Blaming the Endangered Won't Help

Discussion of land-use issues is more constructively framed around balancing the needs of people and nature.

August 06, 2000|RON BOTTORFF | Ron Bottorff of Newbury Park chairs Friends of the Santa Clara River. He is a former public member of the Ventura County Local Agency Formation Commission

Gideon Kanner, in his June 25 op-ed piece, "The Case of the Environmental Overachievers," indulges in the kind of misinformation and distortion that unfortunately generate considerable heat but very little light in the debate about land-use issues in California.

Kanner rants sarcastically through most of his article against the idea of considering endangered species in land-use decisions and places blame on several plants and critters for most of the current California housing shortage. In closing, he does make two good points with which I entirely agree: Our society will have to address, in the coming years, the enormously difficult problem of providing essential housing; and we are building too many large homes on the urban periphery that add to sprawl, traffic congestion and air pollution. Very little else in the way of useful discussion of land-use problems is presented.

Nowhere does Kanner mention the "smart growth" principles, endorsed by many in both government and the environmental community, as ways to rationally address housing issues. These principles include more efficient use of land through building more dwellings per acre (a must if affordable housing is to be made available), rebuilding run-down urban neighborhoods and brownfields, and taking a fresh look at zoning with the idea of allowing homes and businesses to coexist in vibrant downtown areas. Although Kanner takes big swings at opponents of both the Newhall Ranch and Ahmanson Ranch developments, he never mentions water supply--certainly one of the most formidable issues facing all new development in semidesert southern California.

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Kanner seems to think that NIMBYs are the main problem and seemingly does not want to concede that there are many concerns related to Newhall Ranch in addition to biota and loss of wildlife habitat. These include air quality, traffic, water supply and development of hundreds of acres of river flood plain. Moreover, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Santa Clara River, two opponents of Newhall Ranch, are broad-based public-interest organizations and certainly do not fall into the NIMBY category.

Kanner refers to the arroyo toad, federally classified as an endangered species, resorting to the silly statement that its habitat occupies more than 44,000 square miles in the counties of Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino. Yes, of course, Mr. Kanner, the toad does occur in these counties, but only in certain limited types of habitat--habitat that, by the way, we humans have nearly wiped out in the years since California was settled.

As examples, in Southern California we have destroyed more than 90% of our original wetlands, 97% of our pre-settlement riparian (river bank) woodlands and 99% of our native grasslands. (In view of these losses, it would seem that environmentalists have, if anything, underachieved, not overachieved.)

Having wiped out this much of nature over the years, it would appear prudent and responsible to consider how we are affecting a few remaining rare creatures in making land-use decisions. The California Environmental Quality Act and state and federal Endangered Species acts require that we do this, and polls have consistently shown that citizens broadly support the protection of endangered species.

Kanner never mentions the Ventura County Guidelines for Orderly Development--land-use policies in use for more than two decades that basically require new development be placed within urban boundaries, not out in open space as with Ahmanson Ranch.

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There are numerous thorny land-use issues relating to development in Southern California. Solutions will require that we change the way we do things if we are to preserve any reasonable quality of life.

Some of these solutions will involve limiting sprawl through use of urban growth boundaries, adopting revised zoning policies that allow mixed uses, reordering transportation planning to get away from the more-and-bigger-freeways approach, overhauling a fiscal system that rewards cities for building malls instead of apartments and, yes, acting as good stewards of the land.

I hope that even Kanner would agree that we should frame the discussion to avoid blaming a few wild and rare creatures (which only in the last few decades have received any consideration whatsoever) and instead adopt an approach that responsibly balances the needs of people and nature.

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