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Deal Balances Environment, Construction

Riverside County plan allows destruction of rare species in exchange for preserving land elsewhere. A $1,600 fee on each new home will fund it.

June 23, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Federal and state regulators on Tuesday approved a long-delayed plan for Riverside County that will allow the destruction of rare plants and animals for new homes and roads on half a million acres in exchange for preserving other habitat for those species.

The decision will require developers in booming western Riverside County and 14 cities to pay a $1,600 fee per new home, beginning as soon as today, to fund the purchase of up to 153,000 acres of preserve lands.

"It's a plan that strikes a great balance between the environment and managed growth," said Supervisor John Tavaglione.

"I'm just very pleased we were finally able to come to resolution on it."

The permit sidesteps a recent federal court decision that had been the underpinning of more than 400 similar permits granted for logging, construction and mining nationwide.

The permits -- known as "no surprises" habitat conservation plans -- offer a warranty to property owners, assuring that their ability to build will not be delayed if there are discoveries of near-extinct species on the property.

Developers have called the process of complying with the federal Endangered Species Act costly and time-consuming.

The Riverside County plan was on the verge of being signed two weeks ago when U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan banned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from signing any more of the plans for at least six months.

The plan signed Tuesday by an assistant manager of the California-Nevada office of the Fish and Wildlife Service omitted the "no surprises" clause, but included language to quickly add the condition if a court, Congress or federal authorities make it legal to do so.

But home builders said that while they approved of the plan signed by the service and the California Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday, the lack of future guarantees for developers could be a major problem.

"We'd rather take the permit now and then work feverishly to assist the county ... to bring the 'no surprises' assurance back into the program because, without the assurance ... the program doesn't work," said Borre Winckel, executive director of the Building Industry Assn. of Riverside. "We all know you can't do growth accommodation without conservation, but ... the whole point behind the plan was to have comprehensive, one-stop shopping."

County officials agreed, but said there was time to resolve it. Riverside County spent $11 million and worked for years to get the permit approved.

" 'No surprises' is critically important, but it's more of a long-term issue," said Richard Lashbrook, director of the county Transportation Land Management Agency and de facto architect of the plan.

One environmentalist said it was far more important to have the plan in place as soon as possible in fast-growing Riverside County.

"My position has been to get a plan that's as good as possible on Day 1. That's much more important than a surprise in 40 or 50 years," said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitat League, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.

"What this means to the public is that there's going to be beautiful, natural open space in Riverside County, and that will keep Riverside different than, say, L.A. County."

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