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Vote Set for Land Swap

Riverside County leaders' controversial plan creates one huge reserve for species but allows development of an equal-sized chunk.

May 09, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Thursday indicated that it will vote next month to approve a disputed conservation plan to create a 500,000-acre reserve but eliminate protections for endangered species on another 500,000 acres.

Saying they need to act because of burgeoning growth and traffic in the county's western end, a majority of board members said they are ready to approve the plan June 17, despite objections from some environmentalists, farmers and property rights groups.

"If we don't go ahead and do this plan, we're going to set a disaster in motion," said 5th District Supervisor Marion Ashley. "Our property values and our quality of life are going to deteriorate into unbearable gridlock. We're going to sit here and suffocate ourselves."

Under the plan, county, state and federal funds would be used to acquire 153,000 acres of privately owned land that is home to 146 endangered or potentially endangered species. That would be added to existing public lands such as the San Bernardino National Forest to create a reserve system.

In exchange, the U.S. Department of the Interior could grant a permit for up to 500,000 acres in 14 cities and the county that would allow the same plant and animal species to be destroyed during development.

Riverside County, like much of Southern California, is home to scores of fast-disappearing plants and animal species because of its unique climate and soil conditions, and because of encroaching development.

The aim of the county plan is to provide large swaths of habitat for rare species while helping cut through long, costly environmental red tape on street and housing projects.

"This is about streamlining development and road projects," said Richard Lashbrook, director of the county Transportation and Land Management Agency.

A range of critics have objected, and some have threatened to sue if substantial changes aren't made before the final vote.

"This could bankrupt small property owners" whose land is targeted for purchase in the conservation plan, said Bruce Colbert, executive director of the Property Owners Assn. of Riverside County. "They could potentially lose 95% of the value of their land."

Opponents say that while there are no plans to force owners to sell, the owners could face potentially crippling restrictions on development.

Many environmentalists doubt the plan will work. While they support the concept, "it is an ecological disaster" as currently written, said Kathy Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a national advocacy group. Dwindling populations of burrowing owl, quino checkerspot butterfly and other species protected under the Endangered Species Act could be decimated, she said.

Other environmentalists and property owners have endorsed the plan, saying that while it has flaws, it is vital to do something.

"It is not perfect ... but it succeeds in protecting the magnificent natural heritage of this county," said Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League.

Farmers have complained that the plan does not guarantee that they'll be exempt from federal and state environmental laws.

"If you go out and squish a butterfly while you're plowing" you could be in trouble, said Jim Rietkirk of the California Farm Bureau.

The Board of Supervisors asked county staff to work with a small advisory group in coming weeks to tweak certain sections of the proposal to address major concerns.

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