Western Riverside County Habitat Conservation Plan Progressing, but Needs Fine-Tuning

For Release

November 3, 2008

Western Riverside County's Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan — a sweeping effort to protect endangered and threatened species while accelerating the approval of transportation improvements — has made significant progress, but needs modifying to reach its goals in Southern California's changing economy, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.

Overall, the study found that professionals familiar with the authorization process for transportation projects in western Riverside County believed that the plan has sped up the approval process for most road projects in western Riverside County that affect federally listed species by as much as five years. These include the planned realignment of Highway 79, the extension of Clinton Keith Road, the planned 32-mile Mid County Parkway, as well as scores of road and freeway maintenance projects. The Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan also reduces the number of time-consuming lawsuits challenging transportation projects, creating additional time savings.

But the plan's effects were not as helpful on road projects that do not affect listed species. The RAND analysis also found that new funding sources may be needed to meet the plan's goals because land acquisition costs could be higher than initially envisioned.

"This is a very ambitious effort to mitigate development impacts on 146 plant and animal species by creating a well-planned 500,000-acre reserve system, which in turn streamlines the approval process for transportation projects in one of the nation's fastest growing counties," said Lloyd Dixon, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

"Riverside County has made a solid start, having acquired approximately 25 percent of the 153,000 acres needed to complete the reserve in four years. Now they need to fine-tune the plan to make sure it is completed and succeeds," Dixon said.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors adopted the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) in 2004 as a comprehensive, regional solution to balance open space preservation and species protection with the county's growing need for new roads, freeways and other development. The plan calls for conserving about 40 percent of the total land area in Western Riverside County.

In return, federal and state wildlife agencies issued a 75-year permit that allows the county and 14 cities in the region to approve transportation, commercial, industrial and residential development projects outside the conservation reserve that may impact sensitive species.

The study did not assess the ecological benefits of the plan, but examined the prospects for achieving the plan's habitat conservation goals, funding issues and land acquisition costs. To ensure the plan's success, the RAND study identifies several issues that need to be addressed by the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Agency (RCA), which oversees the plan's implementation, as well as various stakeholders. These issues include:

  • Explore methods to increase the acreage obtained through the entitlement and authorization processes for private development projects.
  • Examine how to route the linkages between the core habitat areas so as to minimize acquisition costs, but meet the ecological goals for the reserve.
  • Determine the time frame during which the reserve should be completed, taking into consideration the potential financial savings of completing it within the next decade.
  • Develop financial strategies — including bonds — that would allow the agency to buy land faster in order to complete acquisition of the reserve over the next decade.
  • Regularly update land-acquisition cost and revenue projections to determine whether additional revenue will be necessary. In addition, work with federal and state authorities to determine whether transportation and habitat-conservation funding programs could be integrated to permit more comprehensive resource planning and investment.

"As with anything this complex, the details matter a great deal," said Martin Wachs, director of the RAND Transportation, Space, and Technology Program, and one of the authors of the report.

"For example, depending on the trajectory of future land prices, the timeframe over which the reserve is assembled, and the success of securing land contributions from developers through the project entitlement process, existing revenue sources could be adequate or fall far short of the amount needed to assemble and operate the reserve," Wachs said.

The plan started in 2004 with 347,000 acres of land already held in public trust. Of the remaining 153,000 acres that needed to be acquired, federal and state agencies are to purchase 56,000 acres, local governments are to provide 56,000 acres and local developers are to contribute an additional 41,000 acres through the project review and entitlement process.

At the time of the study, 35,526 acres had been acquired, mostly through land purchases by the Regional Conservation Agency. That number has since grown to approximately 40,000 acres. Only a small portion of land has been acquired through the development review process, largely because developers have not built many projects that would require donations of land.

At its implementation, the plan estimated the value of the needed 153,000 acres at approximately $15,000 per acre, in 2007 dollars. The study estimates that as of mid-2007, the average value was about $29,000 per acre, with the increase due to both a rise in land values in general and the need to purchase a significant number of developed acres in the linkages.

If the linkages can be realigned to avoid developed parcels, the average land value could drop to approximately $22,000 per acre. Federal and state agencies are responsible for one-third of the acquisitions, and local agencies have already secured a share of their commitment. In addition, the study found that the projected costs for implementing the plan and operating the reserve are now estimated to be $350 million, 35 percent higher than initially projected.

However, acquiring the remaining land over a relatively short 10-year time period could allow the reserve to take advantage of fluctuating real estate prices. The study found that current revenues may be enough to operate the reserve if land prices drop substantially from their mid-2007 levels and the Regional Conservation Agency can purchase a substantial number of acres at these reduced prices. But researchers recommend that plan managers closely monitor land prices and consider how to best raise additional revenue, if necessary.

The plan has a set of specific acreage requirements for seven vegetation communities within nine different sub-regions of the plan area, called "rough-step accounting areas." The RAND study found that while there are shortfalls in individual rough step areas, there appears to be enough acreage in total for most of the vegetation communities.

Although the reserve is not yet complete, Dixon said that stakeholders familiar with the authorization process for transportation projects in western Riverside County believe that the plan sped up the permit process for the majority of road projects that affect federally listed species and reduced the frequency or scope of lawsuits.

The effects appear to vary across projects that do not affect federally listed species, and initial evidence suggests the plan has increased the cost of the permitting process in some cases. The study also found mixed results for the effect of the plan on commercial, industrial and residential projects.

Research for the study was sponsored by the Regional Conservation Agency and conducted by the Transportation, Space and Technology program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment. The mission of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division is to improve development, operation, use and protection of society's essential built and natural assets; and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities.

Other authors of the study are Paul Sorensen, Myles Collins, Mark Hanson, Aaron Kofner, Thomas Light, Michael Madsen, Lindell Marsh, Adrian Overton, Howard Shatz and Brian Weatherford.

The study is titled "Balancing Environment and Development: Costs, Revenues, and Benefits of the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan" and is available at www.rand.org.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.