Sunday, February 20, 2005

Press Democrat can't say “CTS Fund II”

(Updated from a story posted at The Other Santa Rosa 6/2/04)

The Press Democrat reported last February that 22 plaintiffs, representing a 32-member “coalition of developers, business groups and public agencies”, filed suit “to overturn protections for the California tiger salamander”; and said the coalition claimed "cumbersome federal regulations have brought development to a grinding halt.” A PD editorial the same day supported the suit, saying

This is not about opposing the preservation of this shy amphibian. It's about forcing the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the table--to work out a conservation plan for preserving the salamander and to develop clear rules for building on salamander habitat.”

The PD commented, “It's regrettable when lawsuits become the only method by which reasonable regulation can be achieved. But without this one, Sonoma County property owners would remain bogged down in a regulatory quagmire.” (2/20/04, “By the tail”)

The lawsuit soon disappeared from the news, and the PD reported last October, "In February, an alliance of home builders, trade groups, cities and nonprofit groups affected by the new salamander protections sued the Fish & Wildlife Service, challenging its declaration of tiger salamanders in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties as endangered. The group dismissed its lawsuit after the Fish & Wildlife Service declared the species as threatened statewide, which lowered its protected status in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties.

The salamanders are also found in Central California, but were not a protected species prior to July. The practical effect of downgrading the salamander's status in Sonoma County remains to be seen. Threatened species receive most of the same protections as those deemed endangered under federal law, but the threatened designation also allows some loopholes
." (10/16/04, "Two environmental groups are challenging a recent decision by federal regulators ...")

Having editorialized that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had to be forced to the table, the PD began to report the issue as a dispute between the City of Santa Rosa and the F&WS—largely ignoring the other 31 members of the “coalition”, and the other 21 plaintiffs in the February suit. And a month later, the PD reported that the City and the Fish & Wildlife Service were forming a committee to protect the salamander and its habitat--with retired Deputy City Manager Ed Brauner as its “facilitator”.

The PD said last March, “Efforts are under way to create a strategy this year to protect the endangered California tiger salamander in central Sonoma County and make room for new homes and businesses, which would be a big relief to developers and local politicians who say salamander-related restrictions are strangling the local economy. The city of Santa Rosa and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are forming a committee that will include state and federal regulators, city and county representatives and possibly environmentalists and developers to create a salamander conservation strategy by June, said Ed Brauner, a retired Santa Rosa deputy city manager hired to lead committee meetings. Still being formed, the committee is scheduled to begin meeting in April.”

If the sides can agree on a plan it would be a huge accomplishment, because some local politicians and developers have been at odds with the Fish and Wildlife Service since emergency protections were first imposed for the animal nearly two years ago. ‘We want to create a cooperative situation where all sides can sit at the table and work together,' Brauner said. ‘I'm hopeful this will be a productive process.’ " (3/21/04, “New panel will craft preservation strategies”),

The “California Tiger Salamander Conservation Strategy Team” began meeting in private March 30. Two months later, the PD reported on the Strategy Team’s first meeting in public (5/25/04, “Salamander panel says it’s seeking balance”):

A new committee trying to find ways to protect the endangered California tiger salamander and make room for growth in the Santa Rosa Plain where it lives defended itself Monday night from environmentalists critical of the process. Members of the California Tiger Salamander Conservation Strategy Team, a group representing federal and state regulatory agencies, local government, developers and environmentalists, made their statements at the end of a 3 1/2 -hour hearing that drew more than 100 people to the Steele Lane Community Center in Santa Rosa.”

Created by the city of Santa Rosa and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the team is trying to identify what land needs to be preserved for salamanders to survive and to establish a framework for where development can occur, team members said.” “Several developers and business interests encouraged the group to push ahead with its goal of striking a balance between protecting the salamander and making room for growth. ‘Our impression is if nothing is done, the salamander would fade into oblivion,’ said Charlie Carson, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of Northern California.”

But the City and the F&WS didn’t create and fund the Strategy Team, the developers did. And Carson’s Homebuilders Association didn’t care very much whether the salamander fades into oblivion--the HBA was the lead plaintiff in the February lawsuit, which was aimed at weakening or discarding federal protection for the salamander’s habitat.

A PD editorial the next day said, “The public process often becomes mired in muck so thick that simple projects take decades to complete. For this reason, it's understandable why local governments, state and federal agencies, and private landowners have created an alternative model for addressing questions regarding the endangered California tiger salamander. In bringing these groups and the environmental community to the table, the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team hopes to share resources, avoid duplicative studies and, ultimately, create an effective salamander protection and conservation plan.” (5/26/04, “Bogged down: a quicker, cheaper approach to saving salamander”)

The editorial commented, “At the first public meeting of the group on Monday, it was clear that many people from the environmental community are skeptical of the motivations of the team and its backers.” And it recommended, “For the credibility of the process, the team should reveal who is funding its staffing and studies, provide information on agreements reached and create additional opportunities for interest groups to express concerns.”

The May editorial said the Strategy Team itself brought the parties and issues “to the table”. But the PD knew the coalition created and funded the Team--and that it did so only after filing a lawsuit to overturn the salamander’s federal protection. The October PD story didn't say when the coalition dropped its suit, so it was unclear last June why representatives from both sides of the lawsuit were holding private meetings—underwritten by the developers—at the same time they reportedly were adversaries in court.

The editorial also said “local governments, state and federal agencies, and private landowners” created an “alternative model”. But in fact, it appears a group of developers--identified so far only as “CTS Fund II”--created and paid for both the model and the Strategy Team.

The North Bay Business Journal reported last March that a group called CTS Fund II--supported by monthly donations from ten local developers—was working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on a strategy to speed stalled construction projects. The story said, “A local building industry-supported group is working feverishly to convince federal regulators to allow construction projects on the Santa Rosa Plain stalled by protection of the California tiger salamander to proceed this spring.

The Santa Rosa-based group, called CTS Fund II, is working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which listed the amphibian as endangered locally last spring, on a strategy for recovering the salamander while allowing construction to proceed on certain housing, park, and municipal water pipeline projects. Key to that strategy are documents consultants are drafting for small and large project proponents to use in showing how they plan to protect the species during and after a project.

Backed by $20,000 in monthly donations from 10 small and large local developers, CTS II has hired Idaho-based former FWS staffer William Lehman to create a site-specific low-effect habitat conservation plan (HCP). It has also hired Marco Waaland of Santa Rosa-based Golden Bear Biostudies to tailor a programmatic biological opinion for the county's three endangered plants, including the Sebastopol meadowfoam flower, into one that will work for the stealthy, wide-ranging amphibian. They plan to present the documents to the FWS by mid March, according to CTS II coordinator Carolyn Wasem
.” (3/1/04, “Taking on the salamander”)

An NBBJ follow-up story said the developers were doing all they could to develop within the salamander habitat as soon as possible, and reported they had hired Ed Brauner as their facilitator. The second story made it clear the developers were hunting salamanders with a two-pronged spear:

As previously reported ["Taking on the salamander," Mar. 1], the conservation strategy is one of two routes the local development community is taking to deal with the federal listing of the critter last spring. The other path is a pending lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in February to overturn the listing in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties.” (4/26/04, “Groups want quick action on a salamander strategy”)

The second story was similar to what the PD had reported March 21, but stressed the urgency of the Strategy Team’s efforts: “Representatives from government agencies, local municipalities, property owners, and environmental groups are putting their heads together to develop a strategy for preserving local habitat of the endangered California tiger salamander while allowing for construction. What's more, they want to produce actionable results in less than two months."

Though cognizant that a comprehensive plan to protect critical habitat of the salamander and other listed species probably will take ‘a long time’ to complete, the team aims to reach agreement on enough of a roadmap by mid June for some projects to progress, according to team facilitator Ed Brauner. ’There's a lot of work to do and not a lot of time,’ says Mr. Brauner, who retired as deputy city manager last summer. The team first met March 30 and will be meeting every two weeks at least through June.”

Colleen Ferguson, a Santa Rosa Public Works department engineer, represents Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Rohnert park on the Strategy Team. It’s unclear who appointed her, or what authority she has to negotiate on behalf of the County and the two cities. Ferguson created a Strategy Team webpage in the Public Works area of the City’s website, at about the same time as the Strategy Team was holding its first public meeting.

The Team’s April 16 Meeting Notes made it clear that “the development community” was paying the bills. When some team members proposed to add native flowers to the salamander conservation plan, Bill Lehman—identified in the 3/1 NBBJ story as an employee of CTS II—responded:

Some team members expressed the need to not only consider the California tiger salamander in the conservation strategy, but to also include federally listed plant species. However, the private landowner community representative, while not disagreeing in principal to the merits of this proposal, expressed two concerns—first that adding additional species to a conservation planning effort also usually adds complexity, time, and cost; and, second, that the development community, whose financial resources are supporting much of this planning effort, agreed to this support as a result of listing of the tiger salamander under the ESA and with respect to the salamander only, not additional species.” (emphasis added)

The coalition’s two-pronged strategy may ultimately involve creation of one or more salamander habitat mitigation banks. But the main thrust of the developers’ strategy appeared last year to be their February lawsuit. The Press Democrat’s February story reported,

A broad coalition of developers, business groups and public agencies from Sonoma County filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to overturn protections for the California tiger salamander, claiming that cumbersome federal regulations have brought development to a grinding halt. The long-planned legal attack, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, was launched by an alliance of 32 home builders, government agencies, trade groups and nonprofits in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties.

It targets a year-old ruling by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which granted the California tiger salamander endangered species status in Sonoma County. The lawsuit also seeks to reverse a similar 2000 ruling in Santa Barbara County.” (2/20/04, “Amphibian habitat focus of lawsuit”)

The February news story was straightforward and clear. It described the suit as “long-planned”; it reported that a 32-member coalition of builders and others had filed suit “to overturn protections for the California tiger salamander “, and it listed 22 actual plaintiffs in an adjoining box. The story continued,

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the cities of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. They are asking the court to downgrade the salamander's status to ‘threatened.’ The suit also seeks to have Fish and Wildlife establish a set of clear-cut procedures for creating mitigation banks, which would provide a protected home for the salamander population.

The SR City Council voted to join in the suit in secret Closed Session 2/10, and disclosed the vote a week later. A preliminary PD story 2/18 said City Manager Jeff Kolin “estimated that the lawsuit would cost about $200,000 if it reaches trial. The city's share of the cost is capped at $5,000, he said.” Were the City an equal plaintiff with the 21 others, its share would be over $9,000.

The City identified the suit as 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. The 2/20 PD story reported that Homebuilders Association head Charlie Carson defended its legal action, as he continued to do later:

Developers also complain there is no clear process to win approval for construction in areas where the tiger salamander lives. As a result, a number of development projects have been stuck in limbo, said Charlie Carson, executive director for the Home Builders Association of Northern California. ‘Things cannot move forward, whether it's city road-widening or sewer projects or the construction of homes. Everything has ground to a halt,’ Carson said.“

But Carson was exaggerating. The story continued,“However, public records show many projects are moving ahead in Sonoma County. In Santa Rosa, about half of the projects that have come before the city have gotten clearance from federal wildlife regulators fairly quickly, said Chuck Regalia, Santa Rosa's deputy community development director. But more than two dozen projects--mostly small subdivisions in the southwest quadrant--have been in limbo since last year awaiting the results of $1 million worth of salamander studies, Regalia said.”

The coalition and the 22 actual plaintiffs presumably were concerned about the more than 24 stalled projects Regalia cited. The PD printed a list of the plaintiffs, but the names were in no obvious order, and the PD did not identify their individual interests.

Rearranged into meaningful categories and alphabetized, the plaintiffs were:

Developers (16):
Airport Business Center
Bellevue Ranch Phase 7
Burbank Housing Development Corp.
Cobblestone Homes
Jackson Family Investments
Mead Clark Lumber
Redwood Equities Investments
Clem Carinalli
Dennis Hunter
James Ratto
Rivendale Homes
Ryder Homes
Santa Rosa Partners
Santa Rosa Associates
Schellinger Brothers
SWSR Associates

Organizations (4):
Home Builders Association of Northern California
North Coast Builders Exchange
Northern California Engineering Contractors Assn.
Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce

Cities (2):
Rohnert Park
Santa Rosa

So the Press Democrat must have known for months who was paying for the Strategy Team. Yet it never printed the name CTS Fund II, or quoted from the NBBJ’s more direct and accurate coverage. It appears the PD has known and ignored the real story for almost a year now, and failed to report on the significant financial interests of the leading plaintiffs in the suit.

If the PD wanted to report the real story, a reporter could start by asking Chuck Regalia for his list of stalled Santa Rosa projects, and matching them up with the list of 22 plaintiff developers above. Then he could do the same for similar stalled projects in Rohnert Park, and under County jurisdiction.

That story might open up a whole new can of worms. Just one example: Clem Carinalli and Dennis Hunter are prominent SR bankers and developers. They are also partners with James Ratto in Redwood Equities Investments, as well as in the North Bay Corporation, the company that hauls garbage for Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Windsor.

A close look at their operations in the Rohnert Park area alone will show they are involved in a variety of commercial and residential developments, including a major westside shopping center; the site of the proposed Indian casino; and mitigation banking for threatened/endangered species, such as the California Tiger Salamander.


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