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Zayante Sandhills Conservation Bank

June 8, 2006 - The Valley Post

Sandhill Property May Become Land Bank

Proposed for Protected Habitat in SLV Gets Initial Federal Approval

By Judith Wellner

A land conservation bank is a bit like an ordinary bank. But instead of money, what a land bank tenders is undeveloped habitat teeming with endangered species. In specific, land banks cater to small developers who can use a land bank to offset impacts their developments may create for endangered species, both plant and animal, that the small developers can’t or don’t want to mitigate on their own properties. By “paying” the in-lieu costs of impacts into the land bank, larger tracts of undeveloped land are set aside and maintained as habitat for certain species while an individual homeowner is allowed to install a swimming pool, for instance, or expand a garage or build a new room on a parcel of land that has already been disturbed or is less pristine than that protected in a land bank.

A land bank is generally a property which might be vulnerable to development and is home to at least one or more endangered species. By creating land banks, environmentalists and government officials can create incentives for larger tracts of land to be preserved that might otherwise be developed, but without public acquisition costs.

Owners of the proposed Zayante Sandhill Conservation Bank — 23 acres of land near the former Cemex quarry — hope their project will be open as a land conservation bank in the next few months. After a three-year wait, their application for a permit to sell bits of land, so-called “credits,” was conditionally approved on June 2 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The cost of the new habitat for buyers is estimated at $6 a square foot and includes the costs of preserving the land in perpetuity. The bank is owned by private investors.

“The approval is conditional, because there are still things that need to be done,” said Roger Root, Senior Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A conservation easement needs to be placed on the property by the owners. This means that the Bank has to declare that they won’t use the land for any purpose other than the protection of wildlife. This needs to be recorded by the County, and then the permit can finally be issued.

The Sandhills of Santa Cruz County

The Santa Cruz sandhills form a unique ecosystem, concentrated in the San Lorenzo River watershed, covering about 4,000 acres near Scotts Valley, Felton, Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon.

The sandhills are home to several endangered species, including the Mount Hermon June beetle, the Zayante band-winged grasshopper and the Ben Lomond spineflower.

The protection of this unique and fragile habitat has been an important goal for environmentalists, along with local and federal officials. At the present time, the biggest threat to the endangered species are home builders and existing home owners wanting to remodel.

Presently, homeowners in the area wanting to expand or build homes have a complex set of guidelines to navigate.

“The process is very complicated right now, and not clearly regulated,” said Ken Hart, Principal Planner for the County’s Planning Department.

In order to build an addition to a home, owners need to go through the County’s building permit process. During this process, they would be encouraged to try and avoid plans that might impact endangered species. For instance, instead of expanding the foundation of their house, they will be advised to build a second story, disturbing a smaller portion of their property.

However, if the impact is not avoidable, the land owner has to turn to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if their plans can be made in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

At this point, a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) needs to be developed, discussing what the potential impacts might be, and how these impacts could be mitigated.

“It is very difficult for the owners to find a way that really mitigates the impact,” said Jeffrey Ringold, a consultant representing the Zayante Sandhills Conservation Bank.

One option is for the private land owner to set aside a habitat on their property for the purpose of protecting wildlife. But this is not always sufficient.

“It depends on the circumstances,” said Root. “If the parcel is very small, it might not be in the best interest of the endangered species to live on that habitat.”

Individual homeowners may also have difficulty maintaining a separate habitat sufficiently for endangered species.

Valley Post

“You have so many small land owners, it really doesn’t make sense to ask them to set aside a part of their land and then manage it,” said Jodi McGraw, Population and Community Ecologist. “It makes more sense to manage wildlife conservation on large areas.”

McGraw said that many of the endangered species need a larger contiguous property in which to thrive.

The Land Bank Alternative

The Zayante Sandhill Conservation Bank has four parcels under its control.

“This is one of the highest quality unprotected habitat patches,” said McGraw.

Root also added that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been looking at this particular piece of land for quite a while not only because it is undeveloped, but also because it uniquely supports all of the federally endangered species.

“The idea is to create an incentive for people to preserve land rather than destroy it,” said Ringold. “It provides relief to small property owners, and it provides a much greater conservation benefit by preserving the largest, highest quality, contiguous habitat.”

Both biologists and officials agree that securing an endangered species habitat off-site makes much more sense than to try and manage tiny areas on private properties.

“The conservation bank is a much better way,” said Hart. “It wouldn’t be the same kind of pristine habitat on people’s own properties.”

“Most people don’t have the techniques themselves. They also don’t want biologists to come to their properties,” said McGraw.

“The real value of a conservation bank is that owners don’t have to deal with all the paperwork,” said Root.

Once they have demonstrated that they purchased the credits, which can cost thousands, their part in the Habitat Conservation Plan and mitigation process is completed. It is then the bank’s responsibility to do the rest.

Time and Money

Even though a conservation bank deals with land and not money, a lot of money is involved in the process. And, at $6 per square foot, should the land bank sell out, investors will collect somewhere around $6 million.

“A tremendous amount of the money will be used for the management of conservation of wildlife and biological management of the preserves,” said Ringold.

She said there were no clear estimates as to total future costs for managing the land bank or guarantees that there would be sufficient interest to sell out the project.

If the Conservation Bank’s permit is finalized, landowners still won’t have to choose this new alternative. They will be able to decide whether they want to use the services of the land bank, or go through the current permit process.

County and the City of Scotts Valley May Have Bigger Say

Currently, only the State manages the HCP process. However, the County and local cities can assume the responsibility.

To save time for landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that the City of Scotts Valley and the County of Santa Cruz develop a regional HCP so they can issue their own permits. In essence, this is a plan that the local agencies will develop outlining guidelines for how local HCPs will be reviewed and decided. The plan must meet U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval. Once approved, as long as the County and City of Scotts Valley act within their approved HCP guidelines, the local agencies can clear permits directly for homeowners. This process is in progress, but it will take some time to bring it to completion.

In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is developing an interim HCP plan for the Mount Hermon June beetle, the Ben Lomond wallflower and the Ben Lomond spineflower to be used for small development projects in the sandhill area.

Landowners will have the opportunity to participate in this plan rather than having to develop one individually.

Site Assessment Qualified Biologists:

Entomological Consulting Services, Ltd.
104 Mountain View Court
Pleasant Hill, CA 94523-2188
Richard A. Arnold, Ph.D.
Phone: 925-825-3784

Jodi M. McGraw, Ph.D.
Population and Community Ecologist
PO Box 883
Boulder Creek, CA 95006
Phone: (831) 338-1990

More Information:

  • How To Permit Projects in the Sandhills

  • Do you Live in the Sandhills? (Service Area)

  • Submit your property information

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