commentary

(The Press-Enterprise)

December 1, 2008

Grab Vital Habitat Now: How Riverside County Can Step Up Conservation While Land Prices Are Down

by Lloyd Dixon

The economic slowdown threatens to put a crimp in ambitious efforts to balance preservation, transportation improvements and development in western Riverside County.

It doesn't have to. Actually, it presents an opportunity.

While the real estate downturn is causing a sharp reduction in development fees that underpin the county's Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, there is a silver lining: lower land acquisition costs.

Launched in 2004, the plan seeks to speed the permitting process for transportation and development projects while providing protection for 146 plant and animal species in western Riverside County.

The plan appears to be working. Time savings in the permit process for road projects that affect threatened or endangered species are running between one and five years. Scores of road safety and maintenance projects have benefited, and there is a widespread perception that litigation to stop or modify projects has been avoided, creating additional time savings. Specific projects that have benefited include the extension of Clinton Keith Road, the planned Mid County Parkway, and the realignment of State Route 79. Story continues below Tim Teebken / Special to The Press-Enterprise

Considerable progress has been made in assembling the reserve, but much remains to be done.

Over the past three years, the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Agency has acquired about 5,500 acres per year. At that rate it would take two decades to reach the plan's goal of preserving roughly 40 percent of the 1.25 million acres in western Riverside County. Our analysis, which is available online at www.rand.org /pubs/monographs/MG816, suggests it would be better to double the pace of acquisition and complete the reserve in 10 years.

Big savings

If the conservation agency can buy a substantial amount of land during the downturn, reserve acquisition costs will be reduced, with potential savings in the billions. Then, when the housing market and the economy recover, as we expect they will, development fees also will increase and generate the funds to cover the purchases.

It won't necessarily be easy. The agency will have to pursue strategies that allow it to decouple annual expenditures from annual revenues.

One approach would be for the county or appropriate agency to issue bonds that would allow purchase of the land now with repayment over time from future revenues.

Another would be to work for changes in the way conservation and transportation project funds can be accessed. Currently a mechanism does not exist that allows funds set aside for future infrastructure projects to be borrowed for habitat conservation and repaid prior to construction. Working with the incoming Congress to allow such flexibility with the assurance that loans will be repaid could be of great benefit to the county.

As the agency adjusts its strategy to acquire and finance the reserve, two additional issues should be addressed: contributions from developers and the routing of linkages between core areas of the preserve.

When the plan was crafted, responsibility for funding it was spread across federal, state, and local government and private developers. Developers help fund the plan through development fees, as well as contributions of land.

Yet only 657 acres were contributed through October 2007 -- less than 2 percent of the developer target. The county and cities that make up the agency need to figure out how to accelerate such contributions, because local governments are responsible for any contribution shortfalls.

The reserve is made up of several large core habitat areas, connected by narrow conservation corridors called linkages. Our analysis showed that the land for linkages is disproportionately expensive because the linkages often run through heavily developed areas and, in many cases, overlap parcels that already have been developed.

Adjusting linkages to avoid the need to acquire developed parcels could save as much as $1 billion -- a potential 25 percent reduction in overall plan costs. Whether such adjustments can be made without degrading the plan's ecological integrity would need to be investigated. But rerouting the linkages should be carefully studied, given the magnitude of the potential savings.

Be proactive

The Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan has gone a long way toward balancing environmental concerns and development in western Riverside County. It is also helping to create conditions for the county's rapid recovery from the current economic downturn.

If Congress adopts a major public works program next year -- as many expect it will -- the plan might well allow federal dollars to be quickly spent in Riverside County, rather than be tied up in litigation or a contentious permitting process.

Being proactive now, to ensure that the plan achieves both its environmental and economic development goals, may prove the most effective way to ensure the environmental and the economic health of western Riverside County.


Lloyd Dixon is a senior economist with the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution that strives to improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This commentary appeared in The Press-Enterprise on December 1, 2008