A decade-long effort to adopt a plan for protecting endangered species in the Coachella Valley is threatening to unravel, at least partially. Some cities that would be covered by the multiple species habitat conservation plan (MSHCP) appear hesitant to approve the plan because it could block large-scale development projects.
While some cities are reluctant, however, three of the biggest local players — Riverside County and two water districts — say they are committed to the plan and will move forward with or without the cities. Whether a plan signed by some, but not all, local entities would satisfy regulatory agencies and environmentalists is uncertain. Plan backers, including development industry leaders, say it would be foolish for the cities to reject the plan because, without it, any hopes of streamlining Endangered Species Act reviews would be lost.
"A multiple species plan will give a certainty to our builders," said Ed Kibbey, executive director of the Desert Chapter of the Building Industry Association of Southern California. "If the plan is passed, it means there is a line in the sand. You can build on this side of the line, and you probably can't on that side of the line."
Which is precisely the problem for some cities and developers. Proposed growth areas in the cities of Indio and Desert Hot Springs fall on the conservation side of the plan's line in the sand. In February, the Indio City Council voted not to support the MSHCP unless the plan opens up 2,500 acres for development in the Indio Hills, north of town. Indio Mayor Gene Gilbert said at the time that adopting the plan would be "developmental suicide."
In Desert Hot Springs, the plan would apparently preclude the proposed 1,700-acre Palmwood development because the site, on either side of Highway 62, lies in a conservation area. According to preliminary environmental review documents, Palmwood would have 2,200 dwelling units, 45 holes of golf, a golf school and a 200-room resort. Some Desert Hot Springs leaders see Palmwood, backed by Landmark Properties U.S. and pro golfer Phil Mickelson, as a potential savior for their city, which has struggled financially.
The MSHCP also could halt a proposed "new town" between the City of Coachella and the Salton Sea. Developer Tim Blixseth has proposed 10,000 housing units in the new town of Paradise Valley. That project, however, is proposed for unincorporated Riverside County, and the county is one of the plan's biggest backers.
Pressure to adopt the plan is increasing. In early February, the board of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG), which has overseen plan preparation, voted 10-1 to endorse the plan. Indio's representative was the lone dissenter. The CVAG vote came only after urgent words from county Supervisors Roy Wilson and Marion Ashley. Wilson suggested that he would oppose future annexation requests of any cities that vote against the plan. (Wilson's threat prompted Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), a longtime political foe, to introduce state legislation that would outlaw attempts to menace public officials into voting certain ways.)
Besides the political pressure, there is legal pressure. Development activities related to the fringe-toed lizard, an endangered species, have been occurring under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between CVAG and the state Department of Fish & Game. That MOU has been extended several times and is due to expire June 30, according to Jim Sullivan, CVAG's director of environmental resources. The state has made clear it will not grant another extension. Without either the MOU or the conservation plan, there would be no approval under the California Endangered Species Act for activities that harm the lizard or its habitat. There is an existing HCP for the lizard, but that provides only federal clearance, Sullivan said.
The voluminous MSHCP was developed under the assumption that all 18 "permittees" — nine cities, the county and eight other government entities, including Caltrans — would adopt the plan. It's not clear what would happen if one of more of the permittees refuses to approve the plan.
"It's really an all-or-nothing proposition," Ashley told The Desert Sun newspaper.
Officials with CVAG have been negotiating with representatives of reluctant cities in hopes of winning plan approval. However, major changes in the plan would require recirculation of the environmental impact report, Sullivan noted. Changes also could threaten federal and state backing.
The plan is an attempt both to accommodate development and to preserve rare plants and animals in one of the state's fastest growing regions. The Coachella Valley experienced annual growth of 4.1% during the 1970s, 5.8% during the 1980s and 3.4% during the 1990s. The state Department of Finance predicts a population increase of 145,000 — growth of a bit less than 3% annually — from 2000 to 2020. Growth, however, has come with environmental consequences.
The plan covers 1.1 million acres in the middle of Riverside County. It designates 747,000 acres in 21 areas for conservation. The plan protects 27 species of plants and animals, 11 of which are already listed as endangered or threatened. The majority of the conservation land is already in public hands, including a huge chunk within Joshua Tree National Park. Still, another 140,000 acres would need to be conserved through public acquisition, dedication, deed restriction or conservation easement within 30 years. The permittees are responsible for lining up 90,000 of those acres.
The plan covers 75 years and would cost an estimated $1.8 billion to carry out. Helping fund the plan would be development fees of about $1,200 per house, or $5,200 per acre for commercial projects. Proposed development outside of conservation areas would not have to undergo review of potential impacts to the 27 species. The plan would serve as both an HCP for federal purposes and as a Natural Communities Conservation Plan under state law. A new joint powers authority, called the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission, formed by the cities, the county and the Coachella Valley Water District would implement the plan.
The plan is unusual in that it draws "hard lines." Most conservation plans — including the MSHCP for western Riverside County — have fuzzy lines demarking potential conservations areas. Within those areas, conservation is encouraged and development requires special review. The Coachella Valley plan clears development outside of conservation areas from species studies and regulation. Up to 10% of land within conservation areas could be developed, but plan authors envision single houses on large lots, not new subdivisions or commercial development. Also, unlike some other conservation plans, the Coachella Valley MSCHP underwent independent scientific review.
The environment dictated where the lines should be drawn, explained Bill Havert, executive director of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy. The conservancy has served as the consultant that wrote the plan.
"Once you start looking at the biology carefully, you find that these species are fairly concentrated," Havert said. The choice, then, is to protect those areas "or lose the species."
Some owners of property in conservation areas have expressed concerns or outright opposition. The plan calls for the conservation commission to acquire property only from willing sellers and at fair market value. How to set that value is a worry to some people. In an opinion piece for The Desert Sun, Bruce Colbert, executive director of the Property Owners Association of Riverside County, wrote: "There are no state or federal funds allocated for the plan. It could take 75 years, if ever, for sufficient funds to become available — certainly longer than the lifetime of many property owners. Their land would be taken without just compensation."
Havert, however, noted that government agencies in the area have acquired 60,000 acres for conservation since work on the plan began during the mid-1990s.
"There is a significant track record here of doing appraisals of land that is considered sensitive habitat and buying land from willing sellers," Havert said.
Local BIA head Kibbey said he understands that individual property owners have concerns. But, for the good of the industry, the plan deserves approval, he said. The plan provides certainty, which is the most important thing to developers, he said. As it now stands, endangered species reviews take an average of eight years to complete, he said.
Certainty is also important to the Coachella Valley Water District, said Monica Swartz, a district biologist. "It makes our operations in the future cheaper and easier to accomplish. We don't have to worry piece by piece about how we're going to preserve these things," she said.
Swartz said there is a great deal of momentum behind the plan, despite some cities' reluctance. "We're planning on going ahead with this no matter what," she said.
Representatives of Imperial Irrigation District and Riverside County have expressed similar sentiments.