June 20, 2008

Desert Hot Springs OKs draft to join habitat plan

Mariecar Mendoza
The Desert Sun

Desert Hot Springs took another step in its effort to catch up with the rest of the Coachella Valley as the City Council voted to move forward with its plan to join a $2.2 billion conservation plan.

In a 4-0 vote Tuesday, with Councilman Al Schmidt abstaining, the City Council approved a draft Planning Agreement with the California Department of Fish & Game, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Coachella Valley Association of Governments that outlines how Desert Hot Springs will join the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

The Planning Agreement is the third step in a long process that Desert Hot Springs officials hope will result in a major amendment to add the city to the plan by the end of the year.

"It's a step that we use to essentially solidify the intent of the city to work with us," said Katie Barrows, CVAG's director of Environmental Resources.

The Planning Agreement completes a long list of important tasks such as defining each agency's goals and commitments to the conservation plan; defines the geographic scope of the conservation planning area; and identifies a preliminary list of natural communities and species known or expected to be affected by the conservation plan.

"This Planning Agreement still needs to go to Sacramento to the Department of Fish & Game for their review and approval," Barrows said. "But we are prepared to go ahead and initiate the process."

Desert Hot Springs was the only city to opt out of the plan in 2006, which forced valley officials to revise the plan and bring it before each city for another approval.

The then-Desert Hot Springs City Council cited concerns the habitat plan could negatively impact proposed projects, notably the Palmwood Golf Club.

But by the fall of 2007, city officials changed their minds and approved a Memorandum of Understanding showing intent to join the conservation plan as soon as possible.

The plan is aimed at preserving land that is home to 27 of the desert's endangered and protected species such as the Peninsular bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

The city and agencies have not established deadline dates in the Planning Agreement.