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Pact may be the ointment for Colton's fly problem

January 22, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Sand dunes, not sugar, attract the endangered Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. Unfortunately for Colton, it has plenty of the former -- and it's costing the blue-collar San Bernardino County city a bundle.

A swarm of the endangered fly lives on a habitat-protected swath of dunes in the city's west side. For years, city officials have wanted to join the rest of the rapidly expanding Inland Empire and cash in on the area's growth. But every time the city has tried, the fly has killed the buzz.

City officials say they have lost an estimated $175 million in potential economic development since 1993, when the fly was designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species.

"Calling it a thorn on the city's side is being polite," said Councilman John D. Mitchell. "The sands fly has literally cost the city hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. It's been real rough."

But after 13 years of being stymied, city and federal officials say they are nearing an agreement to simultaneously develop the desirable land and protect the endangered species.

The city's two-part solution would exchange fly-affected land north of Interstate 10 for a conservation habitat south of the highway.

The agreement would allow the city to build a "Colton Super Block," on about 200 acres north of the freeway, for commercial uses, entertainment and housing. Another parcel would be devoted to medical-related needs of Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, home to one of the area's few burn treatment centers.

To satisfy Fish and Wildlife concerns, the city would use fees from the development to expand a 150-acre fly habitat south of Interstate 10.

The City Council will probably hire a consultant this month to hammer out final negotiations and logistics, Mitchell said.

The fly, orange and brown, is about an inch long and drinks nectar from flowers. The fly emerges only eight weeks a year -- usually August and September -- to lay eggs, then dies off until the next year. There are believed to be only several thousand left.

The Delhi Sands dunes, created by Santa Ana winds whirling dirt into the desert area, is the insect's only known breeding ground.

Already, an estimated 98% of the original habitat is gone, according to a 2003 federal study. The dunes are also home to other species, said Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife's Carlsbad office.

Since the species protection decree 14 years ago, the fly has been the source of much debate. Although neighboring cities including Rialto and Fontana, have also had development occasionally stymied, Colton serves as the debate's focal point.

Plans for a recycling plant, new roads and a sports park were quickly rejected because of the species' protected status.

The discovery of eight flies near the medical center in 1995 cost San Bernardino County $4 million to move the site of the hospital several hundred feet while it was being built.

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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