Property owners worried about critical habitat designation
Friday, November 22, 2002
The designation, according to the Wildlife Service, does not impose restrictions on private landowners unless federal funds or permits are involved.
But, according to local landowners and property rights advocates, saying that the designation won't affect private land is inaccurate because almost any action taken by a property owner, such as developing or converting the land, will require a federal permit. They also claim the economic loss from the designation will be far greater than estimated.
More than 200 concerned property owners crowded into the county Board of Supervisors chambers Thursday night filling the seats, sitting on all available floor space and overflowing into the aisles to hear panelists discuss the critical habitat designation.
Ed Taczanowsky, a panelist and executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of the Central Valley, said he could sum up the critical habitat designation with one word. "Trouble," he said, "and we're all in it."
Other panelists, including representatives from the Pacific Legal Foundation, county Supervisor Kathleen Crookham and the county's UC Merced planning director, Bob Smith, said the designation will take away local choice in land-use decisions.
Land-use decisions need to be made locally, said Smith.
In September, the Wildlife Service proposed that 1.7 million acres in California and Oregon, including the Merced County acreage, be designated as critical habitat for 15 plants and animals, including fairy shrimp, that depend on vernal pools for survival.
Vernal pools are depressions that fill up with shallow water seasonally and the main threat to vernal pool habitat is residential and commercial development and land conversion to farming.
According to the Wildlife Service, the agency didn't want to designate the critical habitat and, when the species were listed in the 1990s, the service said the designation wasn't prudent because it was not likely to benefit the species.
But, in April 2000, the Butte Environmental Council filed suit against the service in federal court for failure to designate critical habitat and the service has been ordered by the court to propose the critical habitat designation.
The critical habitat designation wasn't the only rule under fire Thursday. Dee Dee D'Adamo, a representative for Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, and a panelist Thursday, said that the endangered species designation already restricts the rights of property owners, and critical habitat will raise awareness about those restrictions.
She said, "We need to look at de-listing the species."
On Thursday afternoon, the Wildlife Service released the proposed economic analysis of the critical habitat designation.
The analysis, according to some of Thursday night's panelists, was "woefully inaccurate" and underestimated the cost of the designation to California.
The report finds that, over the next 20 years, the proposed critical habitat designation could force private landowners and public agencies to absorb between $5.4 million and $11.9 million in administrative costs and up to $122.9 million in project modification costs resulting from complying with the Endangered Species Act.
An area can be excluded from critical habitat based on its economic impact, unless excluding it would result in the extinction of the species. So proving that the economic impact outweighs the impact to the species may be a way out of the designation.
Thursday's message from the panelists was clear. They all stressed that property owners should get involved and send comments about the proposal to the Wildlife Service.
Congressman-elect Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, has written a letter stating his concerns about the critical habitat proposal to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton.
Cardoza said he was disappointed that the service had not provided notice to the thousands of property owners who could be affected by the designation and, he said, he is "greatly concerned about the impact that this proposed designation could have on property owners."
The service opened a comment period in September and, on Thursday, extended that period until Dec. 23.
Public comments on the proposal can be sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Attention: Field Supervisor, 2800 Cottage Way, Room W-2605, Sacramento, CA 95825.
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