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Are habitat plans good protection?

Critics say a builder can just ‘buy’ a favorable land-use report.

The City Council this week wrapped up discussions of a new provision in the Critical Areas Ordinance, which proponents say could custom-tailor habitat protections for individual properties while allowing more flexibility for landowners.

But opponents of Habitat Management Plans, now included in the CAO’s draft update, say the provisions would allow loopholes that scale back environmental protections.

A habitat plan would be a report prepared by a professional wildlife or fisheries biologist that evaluates habitat functions on a proposed development site and identifies measures necessary to maintain and improve conservation.

HMPs were proposed as an alternative to buffers that protect wetlands and streams. Approved HMPs could be used to reduce wildlife buffers but cannot be used to alter buffers intended for water quality protection.

The council’s most recent proposal for buffers around fish-bearing streams include 100-foot water quality buffers and 50-foot wildlife buffers.

Councilman Jim Llewellyn, a supporter of HMPs, said the “underlying idea for Habitat Management Plans is to give more flexibility for properties encumbered by wetlands or streams where buffers are going to be prohibitively large.”

He said HMPs would allow a landowner to hire a biologist who will craft a plan that allows some development in a buffer area while prescribing other means to preserve habitat and water quality on the site.

Llewellyn said an HMP may be useful when some buffers intended to protect habitat contain no significant wildlife. Such a plan could scale back the underused habitat buffer and offer other alternatives for more effective wildlife preservation.

As an example, he said a stand of trees used by tree frogs that is not connected to a wetland buffer could be offered as a protected area by an HMP in return for the right to develop on a portion of a nearby wetland.

“It’s site-specific and it analyzes each individual property’s assets as habitat and keeps that habitat viable,” he said.

But HMPs could amount to little more than shopping for a report favorable to a developer, said island resident and marine habitat specialist Jim Brennan.

“It goes without saying that the biggest concern is the fact that you can simply buy the opinion that gets you what you want,” he said.

Cara Cruickshank, co-director of the Natural Landscapes Project, also fears money’s influence over environmental protections.

“This can be abused by people with the right resources,” she said. “If you have enough money you can find someone to write up just about anything.”

Instead, Cruickshank prefers wide buffers with few reduction alternatives.

Brennan said HMPs could have merit if properly crafted and implemented.

But the present CAO draft update contains provisions for HMPs that are untested, he said, and could be easily corrupted because of weak or vague guidelines.

Brennan is also concerned that some city planning department staff are unqualified to make decisions on approval of HMPs and that a high rate of HMPs could overwhelm staff.

“In concept, (HMPs) are not a bad idea,” he said. “But the council needs to look at the flexibility it allows, what we’d be measuring, how it’s interpreted and the issue of transparency. The council doesn’t really understand what it means. There’s a lot more homework to do.”

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