Good reasons for Council to stand pat against the Habitat Plan

The City of Gilroy has a big decision to make. At their meeting
last week, the Council voted to reconsider their decision to
withdraw from the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan.
The City of Gilroy has a big decision to make. At their meeting last week, the Council voted to reconsider their decision to withdraw from the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan. The Council is now reconsidering whether the city is better off under the current system or will be better off under the requirements of the plan.

The Habitat Plan promises two main benefits: streamlined permitting and improved habitat. The so-called streamlining is actually additional time and expense in most instances and improved habitat is actually a process that allows for species demise in hopes the species will relocate to protected areas. Both of these “benefits” come with a high price tag.

Under the current structure, endangered species permits are only required for projects that impact endangered species and their identified and mapped critical habitats. Under the HCP, each and every project falls under the state and federal endangered species acts and must pay for mitigation. The Habitat Plan would penalize every project to pay for the mitigation requirements of just a few. All public and private projects would be assessed fees as though they impact endangered species, causing harmless development to subsidize projects that truly impact species and habitat. Sound streamlined?

In return, projects receive what the Plan’s proponents call a “license to kill.” After paying fees, they would be able to harm, harass, and kill endangered species and destroy their precious habitat. Since project applicants must pay regardless of their impacts to wildlife, there is no incentive to avoid species and their habitat. Where are the species and habitat protections?

The Habitat Plan would cost $1 billion over the next 50 years. It would be funded by private projects like homes, driveways, landscaping, low-income housing, and commercial and retail space as well as public projects like roads, bridges, libraries, and fire stations. It applies to large subdivisions and highway improvements as well as single-family homes and routine infrastructure maintenance.

All of these projects would be charged fees ranging from about $5,000 per acre to $20,000 per acre. For the few projects that currently require mitigation for endangered species, there will likely be a cost savings under the plan.

For most projects, this means substantial additional costs. Santa Clara County estimates that less than 10% of its projects are subject to costly endangered species mitigation, meaning that under the Habitat Plan the other 90% of projects would subsidize projects that fall under the endangered species acts.

The Endangered Species permitting process is broken. The process routinely costs millions of dollars, takes years to complete, and in the end does not effectively recover species. To comply with the Endangered Species Acts, local governments are spending millions of dollars that could keep more peace officers on the streets, teachers in classrooms, and road construction crews at work.

Instead of promoting endangered species it often acts as a disincentive for land managers like farmers, ranchers and rural landowners to conserve species and habitat. The current system has failed in many ways, but the proposed Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan will not address these concerns. The Habitat Plan will worsen, rather than improve, each of the failures of the current process.

The Gilroy City Council has an opportunity at their meeting on March 16 to say enough is enough. The Council should insist that the state and federal agencies responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Acts are accountable to the public by improving the existing process, rather than creating another government bureaucracy to further complicate it.

The Habitat Plan promises higher costs, loss of species and habitat, and local governments that do the bidding of powerful state and federal governments. The Gilroy City Council must decide whether Gilroy residents are better off under the Plan or under the current system. As they consider what is in the city’s best interest, I urge them to consider the facts of the Plan and to do what is best for us, our children, and our grandchildren over the next 50 years.

Tim Chiala is a third-generation Santa Clara Valley farmer and president of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.

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