In a move that could dramatically affect development in Southern California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday announced that more than 500,000 acres of prime real estate is critical habitat for the tiny gnatcatcher bird and the San Diego fairy shrimp.
The ruling means major developers and road builders from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, including Orange County's Transportation Corridor Agencies and Rancho Mission Viejo Co., will face another layer of government scrutiny and potentially billions of dollars in added costs.
But two military bases, Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, won exemptions because of national security issues. Other than military officials, the long-fought decision appeared to satisfy no one, including the federal officials who made it.
The decision, signed Monday after seven years of legal battles, is the first of a slew of pending designations forced by court orders. Tuesday's fairy shrimp designation was the result of a lawsuit by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, while the coastal California gnatcatcher decision resulted from a suit by the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Our reaction is best described as mixed," said Andrew Wetzler, an NRDC staff attorney. "On one hand, we're glad that after years of delay, we finally forced Fish and Wildlife Service to designate 500,000 acres of habitat. That's real progress."
But the exclusion of military and other lands is not "supported by the law or the facts," he said.
He said they would consider renewing the lawsuit because of those exemptions.
Critical habitat is land considered crucial to the survival of creatures on the brink of extinction. The gnatcatcher designation includes 513,650 acres in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and the San Diego fairy shrimp decision includes 4,025 acres in Orange and San Diego counties, said Ken Berg, field supervisor of the service's Carlsbad office.
While such a designation rarely stops construction completely, federal officials can modify or prohibit activities that would severely harm critical habitat on federally regulated land.
'This Could Change the Face of California'
"We're very unhappy," said Laer Pearce, executive director of the Coalition for Habitat Conservation, which represents the Irvine Co., Rancho Mission Viejo Co and others. "It's a terribly flawed, head-in-the-sand designation. We're looking at serious [housing] problems in Southern California. I don't know how we're going to deal with the demographic tidal wave that's going to be hitting the state in the next 20 years. This could change the face of California."
The gnatcatcher is a tiny insect-eating songbird that mews like a kitten and nests in coastal sage scrub, which once blanketed coastal Southern California. The San Diego fairy shrimp is a tiny freshwater crustacean that lives in vernal pools--seasonal wetlands filled with winter rains.
Fish and Wildlife officials disputed the developers' concerns. They have long said that critical habitat designations offer little extra protection over what is afforded when a species is listed as threatened or endangered, while consuming massive dollars and staff hours--a position long held by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Tuesday's announcement was no different.
"The extra layer of protection critical habitat provides listed species is really very minimal," said Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the service's Carlsbad field office. She said the designation would not significantly hamper construction.
"It's being portrayed as the end of development in Southern California--that's not true," Hendron said.
However, developers say that the designation could cost $5.5 billion, according to a study released in August by Empire Economics funded by toll road builders and others.
Developers insisted the designations could also halt a novel approach of balancing construction and conservation, known as habitat conservation plans. While existing habitat plans were exempted on Tuesday, federal officials refused to include possible future plans upfront.
In Orange County, all of Rancho Mission Viejo Co.'s undeveloped property--nearly 23,000 acres in South County--is included in the gnatcatcher habitat area.
Richard Broming, vice president of planning and entitlement for the developer, said in a letter to the service this summer that the designation could cost them $1.1 billion in lost housing sales and ranching leases, and expensive attempts to replace damaged habitat. Ranch officials said Tuesday their position remains the same.
He also said the designation could jeopardize future habitat conservation plans--agreements where developers set aside large chunks of land in exchange for being allowed to destroy sensitive habitat and kill endangered species elsewhere.