Tim Krantz, vice chairman of the Crafton Hills Open Space Conservancy, presented an alternative on what to do with the 1,657 acres left over from the Seven Oaks Dam project: Sell it off as regional habitat mitigation bank.
It wouldn’t provide the rooftops to support retail and restaurants in Highland or build the roads the Harmony plan promised, but it would help Orange County officials recoup the $43.6 million investment it made to protect its citizens from deadly flooding in the past century.
“A mitigation bank is a formally sanctioned area that provides off-site mitigation for other projects with sensitive resources,” he told the Highland City Council in its special Aug. 8 meeting to dump the Harmony plans and cancel the vote. “In the case of the OC land at Highland, the site includes hundreds of acres of potentially salable sensitive habitats.”
Sensitive habitat in the Harmony project include 106 acres of chaparral, 117 acres of Riversidean alluvial fan sage scrub, 124 acres of Riversidean sage scrub, 33 acres of riparian forest and 5 acres of ponds.
Krantz, a professor of environmental science at the University of Redlands, was reading from a letter to Thomas Miller, Orange County’s chief real estate office.
“The county could cash out their land holdings at top dollar,” he told Miller and the council, “typically at the appraised value of the land being developed down in the urban areas at current land values, which are at a premium.”
In his letter, that quote is in boldface and italicized.
So is this one: “Establishment of the Harmony project as a mitigation bank would enable the city of Highland to more easily move forward with development projects elsewhere within their own jurisdiction.”
For instance, the city recently approved a zone change between Greenspot Road and Pole Line Trail just north of the Santa Ana River Wash Habitat Conservation Plan that would allow some 500 new homes. Some of those housing projects might need habitat mitigation.
In parts of the habitat disturbed by the dam construction, Riversidean sage scrub has grown back, making it a candidate for mitigation, Krantz said.
Under the Natural Community Conservation Plan, instituted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1991, a developer can swap land to develop projects in sensitive areas throughout the region by buying land in a mitigation bank.
Krantz cited an example of a proposed project in Upland that includes 20 acres that have been separated from its water source by development and flood-control projects.
The ratio for this mitigation measures favors the seller, Krantz said. Depending on the rarity of the plant, every acre to be mitigated would require the purchase of 4 to 5 acres from the mitigation bank, he said, citing the Riversidean alluvial fan sage scrub, which is quite valuable.
“If the proposed development habitat has threatened or endangered species on it, the mitigation ratio is even higher if that habitat exists in the ‘bank,’ ” Krantz said.
If there is an endangered species on the property, such as federally protected least Bell’s vireo, the mitigation would be 10 to 1. There are 33 acres of habitat in the Harmony property that would be suitable for the tiny bird, which has been on the federal endangered species list since 1986.
The Santa Ana River Wash Habitat Conservation Plan — which is awaiting Senate approval for a land swap with mining companies to maximize the conservation area — is west of the Harmony property. The 3,400-acre Crafton Hills Preserve is south of the property.
Krantz volunteered to work with Orange County and Highland on establishing the land bank.
More than 9.5 million acres have been set aside for habitat protection in California.
They including the Central and Coastal Subregion of Orange County, the Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan and the Coachella Valley Habitat Conservation Plan.