Habitat plan provides key balance – for who?

Opinion section
Valley News - Opinion

Last month, I read again with delight the second opinion piece praising the creation and continued existence of the Multi Species Habitat Conservation Plan written by two of Riverside County’s visionaries: retired supervisors Marion Ashley and John Tavaglione. These two men helped craft the MSHCP as part of the Riverside County Integrated Plan. They were also instrumental in persuading me to vote for the plan in my first month in public office – more than 15 years ago. Their piece appearing in The Press-Enterprise is the second such piece by these gentlemen in as many years and comes on the heels of a grand jury report critical of the administration of this plan.

The plan is credited with streamlining freeway improvements, but the piece omits the fact that the Riverside County Transportation Commission paid $152 million to the Resource Conservation Authority – the organization responsible for implementing the MSHCP – for the right to build more freeway capacity and more interchanges.

The piece also boasted that the MSHCP has secured most of the land they need, but it failed to acknowledge the findings of the RAND Corporation in their report from 2008. That report, commissioned and financed by the RCA for more than $1 million estimated the ultimate acquisition cost for all the habitat land described at $3.8 to $5.2 billion. Of the 156,000 acres promised to be conserved the agency has secured slightly more than 61,000.

While our city was encouraged to join the MSHCP, there was also the threat that we would lose our Measure “A” money – the sales tax initiative earmarked for transportation projects – as well as TUMF Transportation Funding and that by going rogue our projects, both public and private, would go back to the end of the regulatory agency review line. But if we joined, those same agencies would work with us as partners even contributing greatly to the purchase of these habitat lands.

Unfortunately, the resource agencies who promised to share in the financial commitments 15 years ago have been woefully short of fulfilling their role as true partners, while their regulatory arms have continued to flex their muscles against development proposals for both public and private property owners throughout the region.

Furthermore, the piece also fails to mention that a large chunk of these properties came from one municipality: Lake Elsinore. Our 3,000 acre public lake was tagged for conservation along with another 4,000 private acres throughout our city limits. That is more acreage than any other municipality in the plan and there may be more to come. Although we were promised 15 years ago that the resource agencies would work with us, that the final land use authority would rest with the city leaders, and that we would be treated equally (i.e., balanced), this has not always been the case.

In fact, along our 14 miles of shoreline only one project has been approved by the resource agencies in 15 year: the rehabilitation of an already existing public boat launch which had been in use as part of a state park since 1962.

The agencies have denied, restricted or conditioned out of existence a number of worthwhile projects, such as, a motocross camp for children, a Hilton-style hotel and shoreline restaurant and they denied our request to stock our lake with trout while allowing the same species in Lake Perris. And in the middle of our housing crisis, they required a builder of a low & moderate income housing development to dedicate (i.e., purchase off-site) 4 acres of land for the privilege of building affordable housing.

In April 2000, Lake Elsinore filed their first document to expand the I-15 Railroad Canyon Road Interchange. While every other jurisdiction along the Interstate 15 corridor from county line to county line has had their interchanges improved, we will have to wait until next year to finally break ground on our improvement – 20 years later. Remember, the MSHCP was intended to streamline transportation projects.

I thought we were all on the same page Jan. 13, 2004: Work together to protect and preserve our valuable open spaces for generations to come while allowing for critical transportation infrastructure to be built and enabling responsible development of both public and private lands.

The MSHCP has merit, and the spaces preserved are truly special, but in order to provide a balanced plan all the partners must participate and everyone must benefit. One jurisdiction cannot be asked to preserve 7,000 acres while their neighbor has yet to preserve 1 acre. After 15 years, it’s time to take a fresh look at the plan and make sure going forward it truly is balanced.