Developer to buy land for owls
Nests reportedly smashed to avoid environmental limits
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Wednesday, October 18, 2006.
By BOB WILSON
Valley Press Staff Writer
LANCASTER- A land development company responsible for smashing burrowing owl nesting sites to eliminate environmental impediments to construction was ordered Monday by the city's Planning Commission to purchase 30 acres of land as a habitat for burrowing. owls.,
The land is intended to replace 30 acres of owl-nesting area where Royal Investors Group of Los Angeles had submitted plans for the construction of 115 homes on the northwest corner of 40th Street West and Avenue K.
Speaking on behalf of Royal Investors, Orest Y. Dolyniuk told the commission one of the company's "partners" hired someone to remove the concrete irrigation pipes that the owls - considered a species of special concern by the state - use for nesting.
Dolyniuk called the action "an error in judgment."
To prevent future errors, commission Chairman Ken Mann asked his colleagues to require Royal to replace all of the habitat lost.
"It's real disappointing that what took place, took place," Mann said.
"One thing I don't want to have take place - at least on my watch as the chairman - is that somebody get the impression they can go out and start grading property and then come back in and ask for forgiveness," he said.
"At this stage of the game - because we can't count birds and we can't go out and do a study to figure out what really was there after the fact - then what would be appropriate from my viewpoint would be to match (the lost land) acre for acre," Mann said.
"In the future, if we've got somebody who just doesn't get the drift about going in and disturbing habitat, then maybe as time goes by, I might be making recommendations ... for greater (land-replacement) acquisitions," he said.
The nesting sites - concrete irrigation standpipes - were smashed in January after two local environmental groups asked the City Council to overturn the Planning Commission's Oct. 17, 2005, approval of a map submitted for the project.
The commission's approval was appealed by the Friends of the Prime Desert Woodlands and the Antelope Valley Environmental Group, and the appeal was upheld by the City Council on Feb. 14.
The council agreed with the environmental groups and their legal adviser that Royal Investors' plans should have been sent for review to the State Clearinghouse, the agency that has authority over all development projects in California and disseminates information to appropriate departments for environmental review and comment.
The City Council sent plans for the Royal Investors project back to the Planning Commission "with direction to have biological studies re-done on the site and to have a new initial (environmental) study completed on the property," recalled Brian Ludicke, director of Lancaster's Department of Community Development.
A new initial study was sent to the State Clearinghouse with a proposal that Royal Investors be required to purchase and set aside 10 acres of land as a replacement habitat, Ludicke said.
The California Department of Fish and Game - one of the agencies to which such plans are routed by the State Clearinghouse - advised the city to require- Royal ..to, purchase 30 -acres, not -10:
In his recommendation to the Planning Commission on Monday, Ludicke again recommended requiring Royal Investors to set aside 10 acres for burrowing owl habitat.
"We believe that the mitigation measures contained in the initial study and the fact that we have gone through the procedural requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act have provided an adequate environmental review for this project," Ludicke said.
Dolyniuk told the commission he supported Ludicke's recommendation for 10 acres.
The proposal drew protests from environmentalists such as Michael Wilson, president of the Friends of the Prime Desert Woodlands.
Wilson told the commission that CEQA requires a 1:1 replacement ratio when owl burrows are destroyed by a project, not a 1:3 replacement ratio.
If the commission approved the new request, it would be establishing "a threshold ... for malicious destruction of owl habitat," he said.
Furthermore, if the commission allowed Royal Investors to replace the land, then the city must "adopt a program for monitoring on reporting on ... the measures it has imposed," Wilson said.
That means the city must provide a means of monitoring the acquisition and care of the new habitat property, he said. Wilson further contended that the new study submitted to the state erroneously noted that no evidence of owls was found on the site during a Jan. 18 visit - about four days before the standpipes were destroyed.
"Isn't it surprising that no evidence of owls was found on a site where owls had been observed for years?" Wilson asked.
In the appeal upheld by the City Council, the groups requested a full environmental impact report, not a new initial study for a mitigated negative declaration, he said.
"In light of . . . the malicious destruction with intent to influence the environmental review, the overall loss to the community and the judgment to uphold our appeal, we believe than an environmental impact report is required and that 30 acres for mitigation is justified and appropriate," Wilson said.
Wilson's comments were supported by Dean Webb and Russell Almaraz.
Almaraz told the commission he saw owls at the site on Saturday, Jan. 21, about a day before the standpipes were knocked down.
Both Almaraz and Webb voiced support for a full environmental impact report, a 1:1 land-replacement ratio and the hiring of an independent agency to monitor the new habitat land.
After hearing from the public, Mann called the staffs 10-acre replacement proposal "not adequate" and noted that staff failed to include a state Department of Fish and Game recommendation for four owl searches on different days within 30 days of any construction work.
The staff s recommendation was for one search for owls within 30 days of the start of construction.
"I'd be more apt to say we ought to be keeping with fish and game," Mann said.
Vice Chairman Bruce MacPherson concurred and said he preferred that the surveys be done not only "prior to construction" but "prior to any site disturbance."
Royal also will be required to obtain the habitat-replacement land - subject to city and state approvals - prior to any disturbance of the property at 40th Street West and Avenue K.
Title and responsibility for that land is to be transferred to a local conservancy for future preservation.
With those conditions, the commission voted 4-0, with commissioner Mark Troth abstaining from the discussion and vote, to approve Royal Investors' tract map for developing the 30-acre site.
Royal Investors is a private limited-liability company engaged in the purchase and sale of properties in the Antelope Valley.
The company's business is assembling large parcels of land and subdividing the properties into single-family-home sites before selling the city-approved projects to builders.