Yolo Habitat Conservancy responds to expense accusations

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The Yolo Habitat Conservancy (YHC) released the draft Yolo Habitat Conservation Plan and Natural Community Conservation Plan (Yolo Plan) on June 1. They are asking for public comment (over 90 since then) up to Aug. 30.

This countywide plan addresses the protection and mitigation of species required by both federal and state law. Protection and mitigation of species are mandated by law for changes in the infrastructure (roads, bridges and levees), housing development, commercial buildings and agricultural facilities. Every time a natural habitat is changed by human activity, its effect must be mitigated.

By establishing a specific plan for Yolo County, the county takes on local control of this process. Without a local plan, state and federal agencies direct where and how habitat is protected.

The Yolo Plan is designed to coordinate mitigation efforts for the next 50 years in Yolo County.

Development of the Yolo Plan to this stage has been a massive process, initially begun nearly 25 years ago. It required the efforts and agreement of all the cities (Winters, Woodland, Davis and West Sacramento) and county government agencies, as well as both the federal and state Fish and Wildlife Departments that have broad oversights on conservation. The provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require a draft environmental review document, which was also released along with the Yolo Plan.

The Yolo Plan is a program that is designed to replace a piecemeal process for every individual development project with a coordinated and more efficient regional approach to Endangered Species Act permitting. The idea is that the Yolo Plan will eliminate the time and cost uncertainties currently borne by developers and public agencies that are required to mitigate project impacts on protected species and their habitats.

Similar plans are in place in Solano, Sacramento, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties.

Former Winters planning commissioner and city council member Bruce Guelden was part of the planning process for the Yolo Plan years ago, when he served as a representative for the city council. He has become an outspoken critic of the Yolo Plan, objecting to it in a letter to the editor printed in the June 22 Winters Express.

“There is one important fact that the YHC has failed to mention in their recent press release. The proposed plan will cost $371,000,000. This will become the obligation of Yolo County and its citizens,” he wrote.

In response to an inquiry by the Express, YHC emailed the following rebuttal:

“The Yolo Plan assumes no General Fund contributions from member agencies for implementation of the plan, no new local taxes, and no bonds.”

They pointed out that the $371 million in funding for the Yolo Plan over 50 years ($7.4 million per year) comes from four sources:

1) $238 million in mitigation fees. Currently, public agencies and private developers must pay for loss of endangered species habitat on a species-by-species basis. The new fee would cover 12 species and be assessed as one fee per acre.

2)  $78 million will come from state and federal grant funding. Since some grant funds are available only to counties with a habitat plan in place, some of these funds would not be available without the Yolo Plan.

3)  $46 million will come from local matching funds. YHC will partner with the City of Davis Open Space Program, the Yolo County Cache Creek Resources Management Plan program and the Solano County Water Agency’s Lower Putah Creek restoration/enhancement program to identify matching projects. The Yolo Plan requires no change to existing programs of these agencies.

4) $9 million in investment/interest income. This will come from invested endowments for long-term management and monitoring of reserve system properties.

YHC said that, just like what is done now, a developer may pass on some of the mitigation costs to new homeowners in the housing costs.

Pierre Neu, Winters City Council member and YHC board member, said, “The proposed (Yolo Plan) would make the permitting process more clear, less time-consuming, and locally controlled. It does this while providing improved species conservation, the reason for the Endangered Species Act. I believe this to be good for Winters and the region.”

Don Saylor, Yolo County Supervisor for Winters and YHC board member, agreed with the overall goal of the Yolo Plan “that balances economic growth, the protection of agricultural land, and natural resource conservation in Yolo County.”

Bruce Rominger, Winters farmer, has watched the development of the Yolo Habitat Plan with interest. He grew frustrated many times with the length of time it was taking to come to an endpoint, and the amount of money from state and federal grants that was spent on the effort. He said, “The process was mismanaged at some point, but that was changed several years ago and now the plan is back on track. Overall it seems to be a good idea. In some senses, it will help agriculture because there will be coordinated habitat conservancy, rather than piecemeal projects.

“What Guelden writes is true only in the sense that mitigation money from developers is often paid for by homeowners in the cost of a house. Or, if the money is federal and state grant funds, that money is ultimately coming from taxpayers and being returned to the county or city. But those funds are being generated with or without a coordinated plan for conservancy. Hopefully they will be more efficiently used with an existing habitat plan.”

When asked if they had encountered opposition to development of the Yolo Plan, the YHC responded, “We have not encountered any opposition other than Mr. Guelden. The following are confirmed supporters of the Yolo Plan: Yolo Audobon Society; Center for Land-based Learning; Robbins Rice Co.; Brennan, Jewett & Associates; Reynier Fund; Charles and Kathryn Tyson; RAMCO Enterprises; Capitol Development Co.; Yolo Resource Conservation District; Tuleyome.”

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