July 7, 2011

Commission will reduce fee used to protect habitats

Irony: Halt to Eagle Mountain impacted enviro plans to buy critical habitat

Coachella Valley Multiple Species
Habitat Conservation Plan area
Written by Keith Matheny

Coachella Valley -- A developer fee that supports a valleywide species habitat protection plan will be reduced.

The Coachella Valley Conservation Commission, which consists of representatives from the nine valley cities, Riverside County and local water agencies, plans to reduce the mitigation fee supporting the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

The plan protects 240,000 acres of open space and 27 plant and animal species in and around the Coachella Valley, including the threatened desert tortoise, peninsular bighorn sheep and desert pupfish.

The planned fee reduction is $130 per acre for commercial or industrial development, to $5,600 from $5,730.

The fee will drop $30 per acre for developments of up to eight units in affected areas, to $1,254 from $1,284.

Tom Kirk, Coachella Valley Association of Governments executive director, said the fee reductions are prompted by a new “nexus study” required of governments to occasionally evaluate the appropriateness of fees charged for new development.

Declining property values due to the struggling economy did not have a large impact on the fee, Kirk said, because the properties often purchased for habitat protection are remote and less desirable for building, which tends to keep land values more flat.

The habitat protection program hit a potential snag in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling overturning a land exchange that in effect halted the Eagle Mountain Landfill near Joshua Tree National Park.

The multiple species plan was counting on $250 million in long-term funding from the landfill, Kirk said, and developers potentially faced a huge fee increase without it.

But CVAG officials worked with federal and state agencies, environmentalists, and the local building industry, eventually striking a deal to continue with plans to buy critical habitat lands most susceptible to development over the next 20 to 30 years, but to shift lesser priority land purchases out up to 40 years, Kirk said.

“It drove down the fee a little bit, which was a heck of a lot better than raising it a whole lot,” he said.

Riverside County Planning Department Deputy Director Greg Neal said county supervisors are having staff return with an amended plan for a county board vote.

Other member governments will similarly have to amend their ordinances, he said.

Though the multi-species plan was adopted in 2007, to date it has raised only about $2 million in development impact fees — far below projections — due to the down economy, Kirk said.

“One of the many ironies of the plan is, when we have wildlife interests knocking at our door saying, ‘Why don't you acquire more land?' we need more development to do it,” he said.

The program has relied on about $5 million in federal grant funds and $13 million in CVAG transportation mitigation fees to pay for acquisitions, property management and biological monitoring, Kirk said.

“At CVAG, we look at it much like a developer does,” he said. “We'd rather pay a fee to help build interchanges on the I-10 than deal with the uncertainty and high cost of dealing with endangered species on a case-by-case basis.”