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Coastal Panel Seeks Wider Role in Plans to Conserve Habitat

Land use: Commission sparks controversy by saying it wants to review proposals handled by a federal program.


California's top environmental official is at odds with its chief coastal regulator over what role the state Coastal Commission should play in reviewing controversial plans intended to balance economic growth with wildlife conservation.

State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols wrote coastal commissioners Wednesday, asking them to hold off on a proposal that could give the panel new authority to review such plans. The request places Nichols in conflict with the commission's executive director, Peter Douglas, who proposed the oversight authority in a letter sent to Washington last month.

The disagreement pits the stringent protections of the state Coastal Act against a compromise-minded effort championed by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to appease landowners and environmentalists alike. That effort has created more than 300 Habitat Conservation Plans nationwide.

Now, Douglas is questioning if such plans adequately protect wetlands, cliffs and other resources of the California coast. He wants the Coastal Commission to take a formal role in the program, which has become a national model for reconciling government regulations with business needs.

His request has provoked consternation among developers, industry and high-ranking government officials. Some say the Coastal Commission would demand unneeded red tape, sabotaging the plans.

In a letter late Wednesday, Nichols said she has been contacted "by various members of the public who have expressed grave concern about the scope and interpretation" of Douglas' efforts to involve the commission in habitat planning.

She wrote that she is convening meetings between the staffs of the commission and the state Department of Fish and Game, which has taken the lead. She will recommend how to resolve the issue by Dec. 1, she said.

"I would appreciate your cooperation in allowing this process to be completed before any formal requests are made toward changing" the commission's role, she wrote.

Douglas said of Nichols' concerns: "I have multiple masters, so I walk a fine line. But it has to be understood that I work for the Coastal Commission."

The commission plans to take up Nichols' request today.

The controversy highlights how much is at stake in federal and state efforts to craft a compromise between business interests and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Clinton administration's habitat conservation program already has created nearly 80 land-use plans throughout California, including some that encompass stretches of coastline. Most plans were created in the 1990s with help from federal, state and local agencies.

But the commission--the state's chief coastal protection agency--has not been involved directly in designing those plans.

Now, efforts by the commission staff to take part in crafting future plans has set off a firestorm, drawing harsh criticism from such groups as the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Building Industry Assn. A high-ranking federal official has written a strong letter to Douglas, warning that involving the Coastal Commission "will have a chilling effect on applicants' willingness to engage" in the program.

Panel's Director Sees Issue as Pivotal

"This is shaping up to be the most significant environmental issue that the Coastal Commission has dealt with in years," Douglas said Wednesday.

The habitat conservation program attempts to preserve rare plants and animals without causing a virtual moratorium on growth. A Habitat Conservation Plan allows home-building and other growth to proceed on some lands without each project requiring a permit under the Endangered Species Act. In exchange, other land is set aside to protect rare and other native wildlife.

But Douglas questions how well some habitat plans protect coastal resources. What particularly caught the Coastal Commission's attention was a plan now being developed by the city of Carlsbad in San Diego County. It includes a city golf course on land with stream beds that contain water after rainstorms. Two bridges for golf carts would cross a natural stream.

The city already has received federal and state permits for what a city official calls "minor wetlands impacts," and it plans to restore a larger area of wetlands elsewhere.

But the Coastal Commission staff has objected to the golf-course plan on the grounds it fills wetlands--a use Douglas said is not allowed under the Coastal Act. Those and other concerns prompted the commission director to ask the U.S. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management for permission to review the Carlsbad habitat conservation plan to assure it meets the requirements of the Coastal Act. That permission was granted.

Now, the Coastal Commission has proposed to the federal office that it review federal permits issued for habitat plans that might affect the coastal area. The commission already has the ability to review many kinds of permits, and, as a relatively new entity, habitat plan permits should be included, Douglas said.

The federal office was expected to respond by month's end, said its director, Jeff Benoit.

"The commission has perhaps slightly different interests when they look at [habitat plans]," Benoit said. "The coast, from a national perspective, is given special attention. . . . It really is a very special place where there are an awful lot of uses that bump up against each other."


Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

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