Sunday, February 20, 2005

Develop habitat/save salamander--one or both? And who pays?

How do you encourage continuous development in the Santa Rosa Plain, while preserving the habitat of the now "endangered"/now "threatened" California Tiger Salamander? With developable land selling for $100,000 an acre, there's a good chance both can't be done.

Given the choice, local developers would simply build on the flattest and driest of what remains of the CTS habitat. But they don't have that choice--too many laws protect the salamander and four rare native flowers--and it's breaking their hearts.

First they sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, hoping to weaken the federal Endangered Species Act. Then they dropped the suit, and assembled the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team of local, state, and federal technicians, "facilitated" by former Deputy City Manager Ed Brauner. [See below, "Press Democrat can't say 'CTS Fund II' ", first posted 6/2/04 at my previous blog]

The Team has a page at the City's website: Go there to see their brief meeting notes, and download the documents cited below.

From the developers' point of view, the Team hasn't accomplished much. But they did produce a map last October, identifying nine proposed conservation areas between southwest Cotati and northwest Santa Rosa. The Team briefed the City Council at a "Study Session" before its regular Tuesday meeting 1/4/05.

Colleen Ferguson is a City Public Works Department Supervising Engineer. She's also a Team member who represents the County of Sonoma, and the cities of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Cotati. Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park had joined the developers as plaintiffs in their February 2004 suit: "Home Builders Association of Northern California; City of Santa Rosa, et al v Steven A. Williams, Director, United States Fish and Wild Life Service et al."

Ferguson's staff report for the "Study Session" said, "When the conservation strategy is finalized, it will set the stage for appropriate mitigation for development and cooperative adaptive management to protect and enhance the endangered and threatened species in the area, which are protected under both state and federal law. Land owners will have the opportunity to sell habitat rights directly to development interests for mitigation, while continuing the use of their land for compatible purposes, such as grazing."

The Council held three meetings between 2:30 and 4:10 pm, before their January 4 meeting in the Council Chamber. They met at 2:30 to interview an applicant for the Personnel Board, then held a secret Closed Session to consider "intervention" in a lawsuit. It was probably no coincidence that the case was "Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, et al. U.S. District Court No. C 04-04324 WHA (N.D. Cal.) "

Then they met in the Mayor's Conference Room for the "Study Session". The minutes say only, "The Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team has been developing a strategy for preservation of the California tiger salamander and rare plants on the Santa Rosa Plain. Staff updated the Council on the conservation strategy development process."

The PD didn't report on the "Study Session", but I have a January 8 email from one citizen who says he was there: "I attended the Tuesday Jan 4 study session on the CTS, behind closed doors at SR city hall until so many people arrived they had to open one constantly for the developers to peer in.

I videotaped the meeting where the statement was actually made by the Fed Gov representative that they were interested in 'Rubber Stamping' proposals from the group for development approvals to go forward ASAP. Anyway, when I explained an 'exclusive' group such as this should have more public participation such as a member of the public on the committee, Ed Brauner said they don't want any public representatives on the team."

Now the Press Democrat is setting us up for the Team's forthcoming draft report and recommendations. The current spin is that habitat preservation is possible, but perhaps prohibitively expensive.

The first of a two-part editorial said today, "What's certain about Sonoma County's ongoing debate over the preservation of the California tiger salamander is that the outcome will be unprecedented - and breath-taking in its expense ... By one estimate released last week, a conservation plan for the tiger salamander in Sonoma County could end up costing $400 million." (2/20/05, "Slippery slope Part I: Finding the center in this high-stakes salamander debate")

"[B]ecause of the high land costs here, the mitigation price is expected to start at $100,000 an acre. For 4,000 acres that would come to $400 million. To put this number in perspective, it would take the Open Space District more than 20 years to raise this amount through the district's quarter-cent sales tax. It's a stunning sum for a massive amount of land."

That's a curious perspective. The County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District hasn't been buying up the likely salamander habitat in the Santa Rosa Plain, west of the cities of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Cotati. Thanks to the politicians and bureaucrats who control our tax money, it's been buying "development rights" from wealthy ranchers in distant parts of the county.

Will the developer-assembled Team tell us we can't afford to save the CTS habitat? "To suggest, as some have, that this recovery plan is more concerned about development than preservation is simply dishonest. If this plan actually works, Sonoma County will have purchased and set aside a chunk of land equal in size to the entire Squaw Valley ski area."

Team-member Ferguson told the Council, "Land owners will have the opportunity to sell habitat rights directly to development interests for mitigation, while continuing the use of their land for compatible purposes, such as grazing". Buying "habitat rights" from landowners like dairymen, for example, who would continue to keep their cows on the land, sounds a lot like buying "development rights" from ranchers who have no plans to develop anything.

But Ferguson said "development interests" would buy the land, not Sonoma County. Surely the County isn't going to buy 4,000 acres of possible CTS habitat for $400 million--to bail out the developers with our Open Space District tax money. Or is it?

Tune in tomorrow, and watch the editor climb part two of the slippery slope ...


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