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Eagles Are Keeping Out Condos, for Now

Pressure to build in the Big Bear area is strong, despite a water shortage and wildlife worries.

June 06, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

An enclave of bald eagles has thwarted construction of a massive condominium complex for now in the rustic Big Bear Lake hamlet of Fawnskin.

As many as 14 of the majestic birds have made a seasonal home in the branches of the forested glen overlooking the site where developer Irving Okovita wants to build a 133-unit condominium complex and 175-slip marina.

But bald eagles may come off the federally endangered species list by year's end, a move that could allow construction to proceed. That concerns some residents, who fear that the Okovita development and others could imperil overtaxed aquifers that supply water to tinder-dry mountain communities, like this one, that barely escaped last fall's raging forest fires.

Underlying the controversy is a building boom fueled by low interest rates and pent-up demand for vacation homes, say developers and water officials. Yet, at a time when there are more building permits being issued than there are available water connections, some officials are worried about the impact on the drought-stricken region.

Big Bear Valley Community Services, which serves a portion of the region, is limiting water connections to 96 per year.

"If the water shortage gets more severe, we'll ratchet down even further," said water manager Gary Keller.

"I'm not happy about the building boom," he said. "But people have private property rights. Besides that, as water purveyors, it's not our job to control building. It's our job to provide water."

That kind of talk disturbs high-country residents like 93-year-old Tom Core, a Big Bear Valley historian.

"What we need to do is stop construction right now," he said. "Springs that flowed all my life have recently gone bone dry. What's happening here is a disaster, and it shouldn't be allowed."

Todd Murphy, who serves on several Big Bear Valley volunteer boards, agreed.

"What we're seeing is a lack of understanding that you just can't build out like this without serious consequences," he said.

Murphy is leading a petition drive aimed at creating a new formula for growth in the region. The petition calls for a moratorium on growth any time there are water restrictions.

Current restrictions forbid outdoor watering from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and require immediate repair of all leaking waterlines and faucets. Water from landscape irrigation is not allowed to run into the street, and new landscaping is limited to 1,000 square feet of turf.

It makes little sense to many residents that they are forced to conserve while the three regional water districts continue to allow developers to build homes and condominiums.

"People are fed up," Murphy said. "We're going to bring reason into this valley."

Last month, a federal judge blocked construction of the 133-unit condominium complex on grounds it could harm the eagles that spend winter months in surrounding forests.

When fully developed, Marina Point on Big Bear Lake's north shore would feature a tennis court, a clubhouse and the marina.

The eagles flock to the area between November and April to perch in the pine trees and forage in what remains a quiet, rural forested area along the Pacific Flyway -- a transcontinental migration route for millions of birds. They start migrating out of the San Bernardino Mountains in late March, heading back to summer habitat in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Alberta, Canada.

The judge's order will stand until the case is resolved -- a process that could drag on for years, or until bald eagles are taken off the federal endangered species list, a move that wildlife authorities say could occur by year's end.

In court documents, attorney Arthur Wellman, who represents the Marina Point developers, contends that the project would actually enhance the environment and improve conditions for eagles by taking down dead trees and planting new ones.

That argument was disputed in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of Fawnskin. The suit accused developers of operating without permits required by the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit also pointed out that explosive growth over the last two decades on the lake's southern shores has forced the region's shrinking bald eagle population to congregate on the opposite side near Fawnskin.

In the last quarter-century, the average number of bald eagles seen in the San Bernardino Mountains has fallen to 14 from 27, according to annual bird counts conducted by San Bernardino National Forest biologists.

Now, with four large-scale projects proposed for the Fawnskin area, "the cumulative impact of development ... could very well lead to the complete disappearance of the bald eagle from the area," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Kassie Siegel.

Lawyer Wellman, however, was more concerned about how bald eagles were faring nationwide.

"The bald eagle has made a great resurgence and will probably be delisted by the end of this year. That's a good thing for everybody," he said. "If and when they are delisted ... the plaintiffs should dismiss their claim."

In the meantime, Big Bear Valley's water districts are stepping up conservation measures even as new upscale housing developments with names such as Castle Glen, Meadowbrook Estates and Maple Ridge are changing the character of this former workingman's retreat.

Castle Glen is a collection of multistory homes on landscaped hills overlooking wetlands on the eastern end of Big Bear Lake, where bald eagles used to hunt for ducks and trout. Today, the area is dry and the eagles have all but disappeared.

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