$500,000 needed to fund environmental studies; ‘a lot of money at stake’
SANTA ROSA -- A novel private-public effort to restore California tiger salamander and other protected species in a large area of central Sonoma County and allow for some construction may be coming out of hibernation less than a month after the seven-year effort was nearly dead for lack of public funds and uncertainty about the regulatory outcome.
Much of that uncertainty remains, according to public officials involved in the process. However, last week homebuilders and private property owners also involved in the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy effort pledged to come up with an estimated $500,000 to pay for environmental analysis needed to implement the plan.
Members of the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Implementation Committee -- made up of local government officials, state and federal regulators, environmental groups, homebuilders and farmers -- met last Wednesday to discuss whether to move forward with the strategy and who would pay for it.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on June 24 voted to stop work on the implementation of the strategy because main civic backers of the effort, Santa Rosa and the county, couldn’t pay for the remaining environmental studies and the potential for changes in federal environmental policy after the November election.
The board would have to have adequate assurances of private funding to consider reactivation of the implementation committee, according to Mike Reilly, committee vice chairman and county supervisor for the West County area where much of the salamander breeding areas are concentrated.
“It’s up the private sector now,” Mr. Reilly said.
Property owners in the salamander range have been prodding along the “cooperative conservation” venture embodied in the strategy since the emergency listing of the salamander in Sonoma County in 2002. Some want to keep the strategy viable to avoid potential high costs and delays associated with a more conventional approach to habitat protection, according to Carolyn Wasem, whose environmental policy consulting firm represents a number of large local property owners and builders.
“There is a lot of money at stake here,” she said. “It’s important not only to the species but also to the economic vitality of the community to keep this strategy alive.”
Though there’s no firm time frame for bringing the matter back to the board of supervisors, those interested in reviving the strategy want to do so in the next month or two.
The strategy, completed in December 2005, would create a relatively new arrangement between local governments and regulators. Proponents of construction projects in the habitat range of the salamander would be able to mitigate certain species impacts by purchasing “credits” in some 4,000 acres of conservation areas. The range encompasses 17,400 acres mostly west of Highway 101 from south of Cotati north to Windsor.
That unique arrangement, and indications over the past year from regulators that a more conventional and court-tested route of completing a habitat conservation plan, or HCP, for the salamander range, worried some local public officials about potential for legal liability.
Now, some members of the committee will talk with regulators to find out whether the fully implemented strategy, an HCP or a hybrid will be preferable, according to Mr. Reilly.