Thursday, November 09, 2006

Water Agency Unveils Guide to Regulations

Water Agency Unveils Guide to Regulations
By Barry Eberling

FAIRFIELD - Local business leaders on Wednesday learned about a "cookbook" with the recipe for success in navigating environmental regulations.

Solano County Water Agency General Manager David Okita used the term "cookbook" to describe the area's evolving habitat conservation plan. The plan's goal is to help protect the environment while also cutting red tape for developers.

"Solano County is a hotbed for endangered species," Okita told the Solano Economic Development Corp. breakfast gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Vernal pools - clay-lined depressions that fill with water during the winter - are home to such rare species as the Contra Costa goldfield flower and vernal pool fairy shrimp. The California red-legged frog is found in local hills. And on and on.

The habitat conservation plan could be completed in 2008 and cover more than 70 species, Okita said. Spearheaded by the water agency in consultation with state and federal agencies, it is to tell developers upfront what steps they must take to make up for the habitat they build on.

Fairfield planner Erin Beavers described the existing method. Developers often must do environmental impact reports and negotiate separately with such agencies as the state Department of Fish and Game and federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Various agencies are understaffed and impose different requirements.

The result is time and money lost, Beavers said. For example, he said, the site for the proposed Mission Solano homeless shelter has wetlands and is in a designated critical habitat area for vernal pools. These factors could drag the project on for another year, he said.

In some cases, developers end up doing such things as preserving wetlands on their property instead of elsewhere, something Beavers said has questionable habitat value.

"We have a small, natural wetland surrounded by parking lot," Beavers said.

The habitat conservation plan is to streamline the way developers get their permits. It would also encourage the preservation of large tracts of land.

One preservation method is allowing developers to use habitat mitigation banks run by private industry. Developers can buy credits in a mitigation bank, with costs ranging from $5,000 an acre to $100,000 an acre or more. The bank preserves the habitat for them.

Wildlands Inc. owns a mitigation bank for Swainson's hawk habitat near Dixon. It is opening a vernal pool habitat mitigation bank a few miles east of Suisun City, near Highway 12. Mitigation banks can both preserve existing habitat and create new habitat.

"We're developers," said Steve Morgan, CEO of Wildlands Inc. "We develop wildlife habitat."

Some developers have balked at the mitigation ratios being proposed in the habitat conservation plan for some rare species. For example, the ratio for Contra Costa goldfields habitat could be 9-1. But developers not using the plan face a 19-1 habitat replacement ratio from agencies.

"We bargained them down a little bit," Okita said.

Such issues could be resolved next year.

Reach Barry Eberling at

425-4646 Ext. 232 or

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