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California and the West

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.


Provoking consternation among developers, industry and high-ranking government officials, the state Coastal Commission wants a role in a much-touted program to balance economic growth with wildlife conservation.

The controversy, which went public Wednesday at a Coastal Commission meeting in Oceanside, highlighted how much is at stake in federal and state efforts to find a compromise between business interests and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Clinton administration's habitat conservation program has already created nearly 80 land-use plans throughout California, including some that cover large 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. Typically, the state Department of Fish and Game has taken the lead role among state agencies.

Now, efforts by the commission staff to take part in drafting 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 Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas, warning that involving the Coastal Commission "will have a chilling effect on applicants' willingness to engage" in the program.

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

State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols asked coastal commissioners Wednesday to review Douglas' proposal that the panel be allowed to review federal permits needed to create habitat conservation plans. Douglas already made that proposal to federal officials in a Sept. 28 letter now under study in Washington.

The debate pits the stringent protections of the 1977 state Coastal Act against a compromise-minded effort championed by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to appease landowners and environmentalists alike.

The federal habitat conservation planning program attempts to preserve rare plants and animals without causing a virtual moratorium on growth. A habitat conservation plan allows homes 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 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 has already 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 that 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 story.

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