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Riverside County Set to Approve Big Land Plan, a Species Trade-Off

With threats of lawsuits from both sides of the preservation debate, the Board of Supervisors is expected to act today on 1.2 million acres.

June 17, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

With threats of lawsuits from environmentalists and property rights groups, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors today is poised to approve a sweeping 1.2-million-acre, $1-billion conservation plan that would help govern growth for the next 75 years.

The plan could create a 500,000-acre nature preserve system and eliminate protections for endangered species on 700,000 more acres while streamlining new housing, highway and industrial projects.

"This is a historic, breathtaking undertaking," said Supervisor Marion Ashley. He said the plan would guarantee that fast-growing Riverside County "won't be a wall-to-wall concrete jungle. It will be an area where you can ... see wetlands and mountains and open spaces."

Public funds combined with development fees and incentives would be used to acquire up to 153,000 acres that are home to 146 endangered or potentially endangered species. That would be added to 350,000 acres of existing public lands, including the San Bernardino National Forest.

In exchange, under the proposal, the U.S. Interior Department would grant a giant "take" permit in 14 cities and the county that would allow the same wildlife species to be harmed or destroyed elsewhere.

Riverside County, like much of Southern California, is home to scores of fast-disappearing plant and animal species because of unique climate and soil conditions. Their habitat is being eaten up by encroaching development, and now road and housing projects in sensitive areas face lengthy, expensive delays when building permits are sought.

"We're ground zero for the Endangered Species Act," said Supervisor John Tavaglione, who came to favor the plan after the endangered status of a fly species stalled construction of a new Interstate 15 freeway interchange for nearly a decade.

The plan, one of more than 400 nationwide, is billed as a way to preserve species by creating large blocks of habitat and saving key wildlife corridors.

But one of the most controversial species in Southern California, the tiny gnatcatcher songbird, could be excluded if the city of Lake Elsinore does not sign off on the plan. And others charge that none of the species are guaranteed survival.

"This plan sets a bad precedent," said Monica Bond, a biologist in the Idyllwild office of the Center for Biological Diversity. The center, a national group, has filed scores of lawsuits challenging reductions to environmental protections. "This is a really major biological diversity hotspot in the world, and it's also under severe development pressure."

The center's attorneys say that if the plan's environmental studies are adopted as expected, they will sue to block it.

They say they support the concept and wouldn't want to stall its implementation during litigation, but they insist that larger blocks of land be included.

Lake Elsinore officials say their city has been unfairly targeted for preservation of up to 10,000 acres of vacant land, much of it habitat for the federally endangered gnatcatcher.

"The true growth potential of the city will be greatly affected," said city spokesman Mark Dennis. "It really clips our wings."

City staffers have recommended that the City Council not endorse the plan, even though the county has told them they could lose $38 million in transportation funds if they don't agree to support it.

If the proposed Lake Elsinore habitat is not included, federal wildlife officials may exclude the gnatcatcher from the plan, said Richard Lashbrook, the county's transportation and land management agency director.

For that species, developers would then have to go through the traditional permit process.

The county board is also expected to hold a hearing on proposed developer fees for the plan that could total $636 million. Combined with state and federal funds, the fees would be used to acquire much, but not all, of the new conservation land.

The bulk of the land is supposed to be acquired from "willing sellers." But some charge that the plan creates two classes of property owners: First are smaller owners whose land has been deemed vital for conservation and who could face sharply reduced property values, which would force them to sell. Second are national home builders who would be allowed to bulldoze rare habitat and species after paying fees.

"I really believe there's a whole class of property owners ... that end up holding up the bag for everybody else in Riverside County, and it's just not right. It violates their property rights, and ... their civil rights," said Bill Johnson, who has investment land around Vail Lake that could be affected because it is included in proposed wildlife conservation areas.

Jane Block, who has fought to save open space in the county for 24 years, said that without the plan, "you'd just continue to have chaos."

"We're gonna be sued," said Tavaglione of the complaints. "But we feel confident based on what our attorneys tell us that ... in the end we're going to prevail."

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