San Diego County is known nationwide for the tremendous diversity of its plants and animals and the number of species that are considered rare or endangered. A study in the January 1997 issue of Science magazine listed San Diego County as one of two counties in the United States that are considered “hot spots“ for containing unique and unusual species. San Diego County is also known for its remarkable population growth associated with military, technological and tourism industries. Unfortunately, the growth rate and number of unusual species was leading this region toward what former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, described as a "train wreck."
Though the California Environmental Quality Act required reduction and mitigation of impacts from development projects, as development occurred, it often created small areas of open space that were disconnected from other habitat areas, and sometimes too small to support any significant populations of wildlife. As individual species were listed as rare and endangered by the State or Federal Government, the County, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Wildlife Agencies) and property owners would scramble to determine the most appropriate way the species could be protected -- sometimes resulting in small areas of open space causing confusion and conflict with economic growth issues. The overall effect of the MSCP is that it provides for large, connected preserve areas that address a number of species at the habitat level rather than species by species, and area-by-area. This creates a more efficient and effective preserve system as well as better protection for the rare, threatened and endangered species in the region.
Description of the Program
In 1992, the State of California enacted the Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act. This voluntary program allows the state government to enter into planning agreements with landowners, local governments, and other stakeholders to prepare plans that identify the most important areas for a threatened or endangered species, and the areas that are not as important. These NCCP plans may become the basis for a state permit to take threatened and endangered species in exchange for conserving their habitat. The federal government has a similar program under section 10(a) of the federal Endangered Species Act providing for the preparation of habitat conservation plans (HCPs). In California, the Wildlife Agencies have worked to combine the NCCP program with the federal HCP process, to provide permits for listed species. Local governments, such as the County, can take the lead in developing these plans and become the recipient of state and federal permits.
The MSCP is the result of six years of intense planning and review by a diverse group of private conservationists, developers, and a number of public agencies, including the Wildlife Agencies. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved the County Subarea Plan on October 22, 1997. The County of San Diego entered into an Implementing Agreement with the Wildlife Agencies for the County Subarea Plan on March 17, 1998.
The existing boundaries of the County Subarea Plan apply to land that is served by the City of San Diego Metro Wastewater Sewer System and the boundaries extend from the southern portion of Ramona and the San Dieguito River; east to Poway, Lakeside and Alpine; and south to the border with Mexico. The County is currently working on a plan for the northern part of the unincorporated area (North County Plan) that extends from the area around the incorporated cities of Oceanside, Encinitas, San Marcos, Vista, and Escondido east to the Cleveland National Forest and north to the Riverside County. The third phase will involve all of the land not included within the first two phases. This East County Plan will cover the land from Alpine east to Imperial County and north to Riverside County.
The existing County Subarea Plan is divided into segments. Two of the segments contain mostly hardline, areas in which landowners have negotiated with the Wildlife Agencies and County for areas that will be set aside as preserve lands in perpetuity. In return, there are also areas approved for development. The third segment of the County Subarea Plan is not a hardline preserve area, but does include land that has been identified for its biological importance. In this area, the Biological Mitigation Ordinance provides incentives to develop within the less important habitat areas and preserve lands identified as biologically important. There are also specific provisions that address the need to protect important populations of rare and endangered species.
Mitigation from development and local, state, and federal funding protect land that has been set aside for preservation. This preservation may take the form of a conservation easement that dedicates the land for open space in perpetuity, or actual purchase of fee title by a public agency or environmental land trust. The MSCP does not place a moratorium on development. However, all development projects must be in conformance with the MSCP through the Biological Mitigation Ordinance. How a project conforms varies depending on the development type. Some projects meet certain exemption criteria and do not require any modification while others require revisions and mitigation in order for the project to conform. County staff reviews each project and determines what is necessary for conformance with MSCP. The following table summarizes benefits to developers provided by the MSCP:
|Developers and local agencies bear all costs||Cost sharing by developers and County, state, and federal agencies
|Multiple permit authorities||Local agency permit authority granted to County by state and federal agencies
|Project-by-project negotiations for mitigation requirements||Pre-established mitigation requirements
|Disruption from future listings under the state and federal endangered species acts||No disruptions from future listings under the state and federal endangered species acts for covered species
Since the inception of the MSCP, the County has negotiated and purchased several properties from willing sellers within the MSCP. The County will purchase land that meets certain criteria, such as, if the property is important in completing the planned preserve system for the region. No land will be condemned to achieve the goals of the MSCP. In fact, the Board of Supervisors included that statement in a list of deal points prior to the approval of the MSCP. The County will only purchase lands from willing sellers. In addition, federal and state agencies involved with land acquisition have stated similar restrictions on condemnation.
Major programs are in place to manage, maintain and monitor plant and animal life on the lands once they are in the preserve in order to ensure the conservation of their unique resources. The County Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for managing the MSCP lands the County acquires. The overall MSCP goal is to maintain and enhance biological diversity in the region and conserve viable populations of endangered, threatened, and key sensitive species and their habitats, thereby preventing local extirpation and ultimate extinction. The County conducts basic stewardship and management activities on County owned lands set aside to achieve these goals. These activities include but are not limited to, trash removal, passive recreation, patrol, signage, fire management, exotic plant species removal and cultural resource protection.
The County Department of Parks and Recreation is also responsible for monitoring these MSCP lands. Selected species and habitats are carefully monitored with the goal of ensuring the long-term health of populations of priority plant and animal species. Functional habitats and linkages between habitats will also be ensured through these activities. Out of the 582,000-acre area examined under the MSCP, the goal of the plan is to acquire or permanently protect 172,000 acres, 98,379 in the unincorporated area. In the three years since the plan was approved, thousands of acres of land have been added to the MSCP by local, state, and federal agencies.