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Planning Simmers in 'Hot Spot' for Species


It is the last swath of privately owned open land in south Orange County, branded by activists as one of 25 global "hot spots" critical to maintaining a diverse array of plant and animal species. The 22,850-acre Rancho Mission Viejo also may be the last great hope for a sweeping land-use experiment intended to balance endangered-species preservation with landowner rights, say those hammering out a plan for the land they hope will be used as a model statewide.

The intent of Natural Communities Conservation Planning is to prevent environmental conflicts like those over the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

Under the voluntary program, landowners agree to spare large tracts of their land so ecosystems can be saved. In exchange, state and federal wildlife agencies agree to let the owners develop other areas, even if they are homes to endangered species.

But most environmentalists, planners and developers say the program remains unproven 10 years after a pilot version was launched in Southern California. And unless participants settle a dispute over development of sensitive areas of Rancho Mission Viejo, the plan may be seriously set back, the observers say.

The program was launched in 1991 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson's administration to save rapidly disappearing coastal sage scrub ecosystems that are unique to Southern California and parts of Mexico; these areas are full of rare native species like gnatcatchers.

With gnatcatchers living on as much as 350,000 acres of private land in Southern California, the proposed listing of the bird as endangered in the early 1990s threatened to tie up many private and public projects indefinitely.

Only two large land-use plans have been created under the program. One is on Irvine Co. property in central Orange County, where most of the preserve land was set aside before the program existed. Another is on property fragmented among several owners in western San Diego County.

A report last year by the California Research Bureau, a nonpartisan state agency that prepares studies for elected officials, faulted the program for lacking clear scientific standards. The bureau found that wildlife agencies are also hamstrung by inadequate funding, as well as by the absence of reliable data on the ecosystems and species the program is meant to protect. A new law is designed to remedy these gaps as planning expands statewide. "We think the jury is still out" on the effectiveness of the program, said Kip Lipper, chief of staff for state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), who ordered the report. "It's still unclear if it protects the environment as well as use of the Endangered Species Act in the traditional way," he said.

Sher had argued for years against expanding the program outside Southern California, saying that it tips the scale too far in favor of development interests. Yet as part of the deal-making to get more environmental assurances into the program, Sher wrote the law that adds standards but also brings the plan to other parts of the state.

State wildlife officials, on the other hand, worry that writing in too many requirements could ultimately harm their ability to cut deals that protect the environment. "Each jurisdiction has its own set of circumstances and economic needs, and we need to work them out," said Gail Presley, statewide regional conservation planner for the Department of Fish and Game. The department is moving to create new planning districts under the program in the Sierra Nevada foothills, along the north coast, and in two dozen other environmental battlegrounds.

The O'Neill family, which owns Rancho Mission Viejo, signed onto the program in the mid-1990s.

Now the family wants to complete the build-out in one stroke. They say they want to create a project that preserves habitat corridors and a working cattle ranch on the land without going bankrupt in the process.

The ranch is a perfect testing ground for the planning process: the land has a single owner, the century-old, family-owned ranch is not fragmented by zoning, and it is smack in the path of growth.

"This piece of land is a blank canvas where the departments can show what the program will do and what it will not do," said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League, a Los Angeles-based environmental group.

The Endangered Habitats League, Audubon California, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other mainstream environmental groups crucial to the Natural Communities Conservation Planning program's survival say they will work to dismantle the ranch's plan if it destroys too much habitat.

Landowners say they are prepared to withdraw if the agencies cannot come up with a plan that promises the Rancho Mission Viejo company that there will be no backtracking once a deal is reached--especially if species living in areas approved for development are later added to the endangered-species list.

Things have not gotten off to the most promising start at the ranch.

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