County not in market for mitigation lands

By From page A5 | June 24, 2011

El Dorado County supervisors backed each other up Tuesday afternoon to reject any notion that the county should acquire more land in order to mitigate environmental losses due to future development.

The issue was raised during a presentation by Development Services Director Roger Trout. On the agenda to ask the board to approve a request for proposals for Phase 2 of the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan, Trout attempted to clarify options for mitigating loss of habitat or resources that will occur as the county develops. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, counties are required to develop comprehensive “mitigation plans.” The INRMP will eventually become an element of the county’s General Plan.

Mitigation 101 is generated when a particular project is expected to cause significant loss or disruption of wildlife or environmental degradation. The law requires the county to address the issue and find a substitute for the loss. Typically, plans for development include some additional measures for mitigating “significant impact.”

In a recent example, highway work south of the town of El Dorado called for the removal of several hundred oak trees. Caltrans and the contractor were required to mitigate the effect by planting many more than that number within the same area. Whether a particular mitigation plan is accepted and approved can be determined on a case-by-case basis. Whether the mitigation satisfies all stakeholders or interested parties is also a subjective determination.

Trout offered a list of 11 policy issues that he recommended the board consider as it solicits consultants and contractors to develop a “draft plan” that can be incorporated into the General Plan. The first item clarifies that the INRMP “is not a habitat conservation plan nor a restoration plan for past practices.” Rather, he said, it is “a plan to mitigate impacts to habitat loss and fragmentation by development allowed in the General Plan.”

His second point, titled “County ownership of fee title lands,” suggests that “it is unlikely the county wishes to acquire land for mitigation purposes” and that “management of lands is not a core function of the county.”

Fee title or fee simple property is basically private property over which the owner has significant control and has many rights to do with as he chooses.

Supervisors John Knight and Jack Sweeney went a step further than Trout.

“I don’t want the county to own any more land than is necessary,” Knight said, and the matter was refined by other supervisors concerned about not taking more land off  the county’s tax rolls.

Supervisor Ron Briggs asked Trout directly, “Is there an assumption that we need more land for mitigation?” to which Trout replied that there are a number of other options such as easements that would keep the county out of the land management business.

Briggs further noted that only about 4,600 acres out of more than 1.1 million are currently under agricultural production and that “ag land should be left out of this. I don’t like messing with ag land,” he said. “And I don’t want to do more mitigation fees. People are already burdened by water and other fees.”

He urged the board to “give ourselves a little dexterity when it comes to mitigation plans.”

He also reminded the board that about “fifty percent of our land mass is publicly owned.” The U.S. Forest Service controls a significant portion of the undeveloped land in the county, and the county has little or no authority over what can be done on those lands.

The first phase of the INRMP project involved extensive research and compilation of past studies to gather data on wildlife habitat, deer migration patterns, movement corridors through or around barriers such as Highway 50, riparian and wetland issues, native and rare plants.

Board Chairman Ray Nutting explained that the issues driving the INRMP are primarily concentrated on the Western Slope of the county.

“From the top of the Sierra down to the snow line at about 4,000 feet, we’re OK,” Nutting said. “But below that are the migratory animals and the predators. There’s more wildlife now than when I was a little boy. I’ve seen more mountain lion and bear recently than I ever saw when I was younger. We need to get better information and see how it fits with the General Plan. We need to know what we’re doing out there.”

Trout reminded the board that the General Plan’s mitigation requirements are mostly aimed at the areas zoned as community regions, “not the 5-acre parcels, but we still need to make some mitigation.”

Toward that end, the board directed Trout to form a small committee of local experts to hash out the specifics of how to comply with the demands of the law while allowing landowners as much latitude as possible to develop their property. That committee is expected to bring a draft plan for the board to review within the next several weeks.

E-mail Chris Daley at [email protected] or call 530-344-5063.

Chris Daley

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