Three suits aim to undo habitat plan - Land owners and developers call the conservation program unfair and bad science.



Inland Souhern California - Calling a massive wildlife conservation plan unfair and backed by bad science, property owners, developers and farmers have filed at least three lawsuits to stop the county from implementing it.

While not unexpected, the legal challenges threaten to upend four years of costly planning that ended with the Board of Supervisors voting last month to obtain 153,000 acres during the next 25 years to protect 146 species of plants and animals.

One lawsuit includes five companies headed by developer Castle & Cooke, plus the Riverside County Farm Bureau and the Riverside County Property Owners Association.

Attorney Darren Stroud said the county's multispecies habitat conservation plan violates property rights and creates an unwieldy bureaucracy that could prolong the development process instead of shorten it.

Under the plan, he said, landowners must worry about 146 species instead of just the 31 that are on threatened or endangered lists.

"Under the existing system, if you knew you had sensitive area, you could avoid it," Stroud said. Under the new plan, "you're automatically required to do all these things."

A second lawsuit was filed by three companies owned by property owner and developer Bill Johnson, who owns 9,000 acres near Vail Lake. Johnson's attorney, Craig Collins, said a third suit had been filed by another property owner who did not want to be identified yet.

Collins said the main flaw of the plan is poor understanding of the habitat that's being protected.

"They relied on a bunch of untrained graduate students making things up, basically, not on experienced, biological scientists who did extensive studies," he said.

Michael Allen, director for the Center for Conservation Biology at UC Riverside, said the research was reviewed by a panel of faculty from area universities.

"I don't think there's much science that is available that was not used," Allen said.

County Supervisor Marion Ashley said the county would move forward with its plans despite the lawsuits. The board is scheduled today to approve a fee on new homes and businesses to help buy land for conservation.

A comprehensive, multiple-species habitat plan allows the county to build and expand highways and freeways to keep up with population growth, Ashley said.

"I think they're playing Russian roulette with the quality of life in Riverside County," Ashley said of the plaintiffs.

If the county had to satisfy species protection laws on a parcel-by-parcel basis, Ashley said, "it will take years and years, it will create a nightmare for the citizens of Riverside County."

Frans Bigelow, vice president of development for Castle & Cooke, said the habitat plan will harm cities like Lake Elsinore by taking land out of development to protect species not considered threatened.

"The people we're going to be selling homes to are going to be impacted by the city's lack of ability to provide services," he said.


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