Conservation Plan Clears Major Milestone

The proposed Placer County Conservation Plan passed a major milestone at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

On a unanimous vote, board members agreed to send the plan’s updated conservation strategy for review by federal and state regulatory agencies.

“I think we have a plan that is historic,” said Supervisor Robert M. Weygandt, long a driving force behind development of the plan.

Known informally as the PCCP, the plan seeks to balance growth and the conservation of wildlife habitat, wetlands, and other natural resources in Placer County.

Bruin RanchThe plan would create a comprehensive framework for complying with federal and state environmental rules. Additionally the plan proposes to provide for state and federal permitting at the local level as much as possible, benefitting local property owners, businesses and residents.

It would provide the business community with a streamlined approval process for development projects that would be less costly and time-consuming.

The PCCP also would promote long-range, comprehensive planning that would help protect the area’s high quality of life and preserve its most important natural resources.

Supervisor Weygandt noted the PCCP may become the most comprehensive plan of its kind in the nation. The county’s effort is unusual because it is proposing a dual-purpose plan that would protect endangered species and wetlands while also conserving natural resources in the foothills and valley floor.

Responding to questioning, Assistant Director Loren Clark of the county Community Development Resource Agency emphasized that property and conservation easements would only be acquired from willing sellers and the PCCP’s proposed reserve map would not change zoning on any properties in the proposed reserve area.

“It simply identifies an area in which we want to conduct conservation activities,” he explained.

Development would be restricted in the reserve area only if a property was acquired in fee title for conservation purposes or a conservation easement was acquired. Conservation easements can prevent properties from being subdivided or developed, but often allow farming to continue. Property owners are compensated financially for conservation easements.

The county’s partners on the project are the City of Lincoln and the Placer County Water Agency. Approximately 212,000 acres of land would be included within the PCCP’s boundaries, including unincorporated areas of the foothills and valley floor and the build out area of Lincoln’s new General Plan.

Clark emphasized that the PCCP would help guide growth, noting the area within the plan’s boundaries is projected to gain 150,000 new jobs and 90,000 additional households over the next 50 years.

If the plan is enacted, Placer County and the city will assume responsibility for protecting Swainson’s hawks, Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and about 30 other species of wildlife covered by state and federal laws and for conserving important wetland, riparian and stream systems through what is known as the County Aquatic Resource Program.

Assuming those responsibilities would allow the county and city to establish streamlined, locally controlled permit processes for property owners whose projects impact endangered species habitats or wetlands. Currently, many property owners must obtain permits from several federal and state agencies for development projects in addition to their local approvals.

The plan’s underlying strategy has changed substantially in response to comments made by federal and state agencies when they reviewed an earlier draft in 2005. In their comments, the agencies emphasized that the 2005 draft plan lacked a reserve map identifying areas where conservation activities would occur, including habitat restoration.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members reviewed the proposed reserve map and updated conservation strategy.

Federal agencies that must review, and ultimately approve the PCCP if it is to be implemented, include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Two State agencies are also involved: the California Department of Fish and Game and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The current mitigation requirements for wetlands and endangered species impacts often result in the conservation of small, isolated habitat and wetlands. These areas are difficult to monitor and manage in perpetuity and are often located in the middle of urban and suburban environments.

The PCCP’s strategy seeks to coordinate conservation efforts so a large, interconnected reserve system is created. A key focus would be on preserving land within the Bear River and Coon Creek watersheds and on protecting vernal pool grasslands, streams and floodplains on the valley floor.

The reserve map organizes lands within the PCCP’s boundaries into three categories:

Areas with a total of almost 118,000 acres that are expected to accommodate growth over the next 50 years;
More than 16,000 acres that have been already protected from development permanently.
Almost 80,000 acres that would be included in an area to be known as a Reserve Acquisition Area, or RAA.

In its report to the board, county staff estimates that between 25,000 and 46,000 acres would be conserved over the next 50 years and projects land-acquisition and restoration costs at approximately $1.57 billion. The actual amount of land conserved and restored would be directly related to the amount of development that occurs over the next 50 years.

Most of the one-time costs would be paid by property owners who develop their land. Even if the PCCP is not enacted, property owners will face comparable or higher costs because they already must comply with federal and state laws that require them to mitigate for impacts that their development projects have on endangered species habitats and wetlands.

The report to the board says the PCCP would also be supported by federal and state grant funding, but emphasizes there is no way to estimate how much grant funding might be available over the next 50 years. The $1.57 billion cost would be reduced accordingly by these state and federal contributions.

The staff report estimates that annual costs for managing and monitoring conserved lands will range from about $2.4 million at the outset of the program to $8.4 million in 2060. Ongoing costs would be financed through a reserve fund that would be comprised of fee revenue from developers and interest from investments, rather than contributions from the County General Fund.

In a frequently-asked-questions report to the Board, the CDRA emphasizes that not all of the land in the reserve area would be protected.

“Only those lands that would be necessary to account for impacts between now and 2060 would need to be protected,” the report explains. “The balance of the area would continue to be used for those uses allowed under local zoning and current general plan land-use designations.”

Development of land would be allowed for RAA properties in keeping with current zoning and General Plan guidelines. Most properties in the proposed reserve area are zoned for farming and are designated for agricultural uses in the County General Plan.

“Development is only restricted in the RAA when property has been acquired in fee title or a conservation easement has been sold,” the report says.