County gives tentative OK to substituting 105 acres of private land for habitat restoration
By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The debate continues over the merits of a controversial land deal, tentatively approved Tuesday, involving publicly protected Sonoma County farmland.
Retiring Supervisors Mike Kerns and Paul Kelley, and board Chairwoman Valerie Brown, backed Roblar Road quarry developer John Barella’s plan to use 105 acres of adjacent, taxpayer-protected private ranchland to replace rare amphibian habitat that will be lost when rock is extracted in his $60 million project.
The 3-2 vote, in which Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo opposed the proposal, has fueled continued discussion over whether the deal provides public benefits and its policy implications for the county’s 20-year-old Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
Supporters praised the board majority, saying they looked beyond the controversy surrounding the quarry and upheld the purpose of the open space district and its protection agreement on the 105 acres of farmland.
“The board dealt absolutely appropriately with the issue before them,” said former five-term county supervisor Tim Smith, who has worked for Barella. “The district is in the position to fulfill a couple of missions at the same time.
Preservation of agriculture and preservation of natural resources. That focus tends to get lost when it’s connected with a quarry.”
But critics said the decision sets a dangerous precedent by tampering with agreements intended to be permanent, known as conservation easements, and opening up district-protected lands for habitat requirements connected to a private development.
“Once you start fiddling with those easements, it’s all downhill from there,” said Bill Kortum, a former county supervisor and Petaluma environmentalist who has served nearly three decades on the board of the Sonoma Land Trust.
The normally apolitical group also opposes the deal, which Kortum and others say could open the door to widescale private habitat mitigation on district-protected land.
In Barella’s case, the deal could save him $5 million to $15 million — the cost of equivalent acreage or more pricey “habitat credits” he might otherwise have to buy — according to figures provided by mitigation experts.
Barella, who declined interview requests last week, has disputed those figures, saying he has land elsewhere in the county that might be suitable for mitigation.
Critics countered that an established principle in habitat mitigation is the addition of new protected lands. They said that step would not happen in the deal with Barella, though he has offered the district title to the 200-acre quarry property and an easement on his 244-acre Petaluma River ranch.
“The public has huge investments in buying these easements,” Kortum said. “Why should they further the lining of a developer’s pocketbook?”
Speakers in Tuesday’s packed public hearing represented viewpoints from both sides.
Kerns, who represents the south county area slated for the quarry, and Brown, the board chairwoman and swing vote Tuesday, framed the issue in both narrow and broad terms.
The property in question is a 388-acre rangeland parcel owned by Diamond W Dairy co-owners Ken and Clairette Wilson. The supervisors said carving out a piece for endangered California tiger salamander and threatened California red-legged frog habitat made good biological sense since the amphibians live on the adjacent quarry property.
They also disagreed with district staff and the advice of the County Counsel’s Office and determined that any further farming restrictions on the Wilson property to protect habitat would be consistent with the current easement that protects agriculture.
Both also cast the issue in larger terms.
District-protected lands should be on the table when habitat mitigation is required of private or public developments, they said.
The public benefit of such deals comes in the additional habitat they provide for endangered species, they said.
Kerns went further, echoing quarry supporters who spoke Tuesday by saying such deals also enable developments — be it the widening of Highway 101, construction of the SMART rail line, or a quarry — that provide public benefit.
“Where are we to mitigate for that if county protected lands are not on the table?” he said. “This will allow certain types of development to go forward that otherwise might not be able to go forward.”
Both said such decisions should be made on a “case-by-case basis.” They also disagreed with critics that Tuesday’s vote set any new precedent, or that it would undermine taxpayer and landowner support for the district.
“It’s hard for me to believe that based on a decision to combine cattle and tiger salamander that, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m never going to support the open space district again,’” said Brown. “I think people are much more savvy than that.”
The two supervisors also echoed quarry supporters who said the issue wouldn’t have garnered much attention if it hadn’t been connected to the hotly disputed quarry project. It is set for formal approval Tuesday, along with the open space deal.
But critics, including land conservationists, dairy belt landowners and ag leaders, some of whom didn’t take a stand on the quarry, said any instance of changing or reinterpreting conservation easements, which are designed as permanent documents, should set off alarm bells.
“If you allow modifications for a good cause, then the next step is maybe one that is not so good,” said former south county supervisor Jim Harberson, who was a leader in the open space district’s formation.
“The public has a perception that ‘in perpetuity’ means that (easements) are not open to reinterpretation by different boards of supervisors over time,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The vote was a “head-scratcher” for the farming community, he said, because it relies on the “certainty” of such agreements.
“I’m not sure that the board gave us confidence in the integrity of the district’s easement policies,” he said.
In the aftermath of last week’s hearing, all sides have called for the open space district to resume work on a policy that could guide such decisions in the future. The district’s citizens advisory committee, which unanimously opposed the deal, had called for postponement of Tuesday’s vote to allow for a draft policy, shelved more than a year ago, to be completed.
Meanwhile, any final go-ahead for the deal will have to come from state and federal wildlife officials. Their input is not expected until Barella completes his formal application, which his biologist said wouldn’t happen until spring.
The Tresch dairy family are also mulling their next move.
The family opposed the deal because a 368-acre piece of their rangeland adjacent to the Wilson property is covered by the same conservation easement. The Tresches say their farming operations on that land could be restricted without their consent to protect the rare frog and salamander habitat to be added to the Wilson property.
A legal challenge is not out of the question, Kathy Tresch said.
“We’re still kind of in shock,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.