San Diego County has been a national leader in habitat conservation planning, setting aside areas where rare and endangered species can thrive in the midst of ongoing development. Now, 12 years after a plan for the southern, inland part of the county was adopted, a second habitat plan has been released, this time for the inland North County.

The North County Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) covers an area that is east of the cities of Oceanside, Encinitas, San Marcos, Vista, and Escondido and which runs north to the Riverside County line. The MSCP's boundaries encompass 295,000 acres, of which 100,000 acres are proposed to be off limits to development. The North County MSCP is intended to protect 63 rare or endangered species, including the California gnatcatcher, Stephens' kangaroo rat, San Diego fairy shrimp, Quino checkerspot butterfly and coast barrel cactus. The area contains chaparral, coastal sage and some forests.
The 12-year-old South County MSCP has been considered a success for providing habitat. It was supposed to preserve 98,000 acres over a 50-year period, and already 78,000 acres have been set aside thanks to local, state and federal funding, as well as developers' contributions. But a different landscape in the North County means there is no guarantee of similar success.

For starters, much of the undeveloped land in the North County is farmland used for growing avocados, flowers and blueberries. Costs of acquiring easements and fee title are expected to be higher than in the undeveloped South County lands, said Jim Whalen, co-chair of the Alliance for Habitat Conservation, a developer-funded group. Whalen also serves on a stakeholders' advisory group that has worked on the North County plan for seven years.

A key part of the new MSCP is inclusion of several creeks and rivers, which provide wildlife corridors. Most of those waterways are owned by farmers who grow crops on fertile land next to the waterway, Whalen explained.
Besides farmland, two large chunks of undeveloped land are within the MSCP's boundaries: Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and Rancho Guejito, 22,000 acres of ranch land east of Escondido (see CP&DR Local Watch, April 2007).

Like the South County plan, the North County MSCP is intended to ease the development process by eliminating case-by-case species evaluations, according to Tom Oberbauer, who oversees MSCPs for the county's Planning and Land Use Department.

"We are also attempting to avoid the pitfalls of a few issues in the South County plan," Oberbauer said. "Specifically, the South County plan had what are referred to as Biological Resource Core Areas, a concept in which property is examined to determine if it meets high value habitat qualities and should be treated as such regardless of whether or not is it located within a pre-approved mitigation area. This has confused the mitigation concept. In the North County plan, we are avoiding the use of the Biological Resource Core Area and instead are focusing on the pre-approved mitigation areas."

The North County MSCP does not appear to have caused much alarm. Escondido Community Development Director Jonathan Brindle, for example, said his city has no conflicts with the plan, which touches the city limits. In 2007, Rancho Guejito's owners asked the city to consider annexation of the property, but Brindle indicated nothing ever happened and the city received no plans to develop the ranch.

While the new MSCP is debated for unincorporated county land, a proposed habitat protection plan impacting the adjacent cities of northern San Diego County has slowly been taking shape. The seven cities' Multiple Habitat Conservation Program, which is to conserve 19,000 acres for 80 species, was adopted by SANDAG in 2003, but so far has been approved by only one of the cities involved – Carlsbad – according to Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, an environmental group.

Brindle said the major hurdle to approval of the SANDAG plan is finding a way to finance needed studies that will examine ongoing issues such as the condition of the covered species and of the vegetation.

The costs of San Diego County's MSCPs are unclear. Oberbauer said acquisition of the mitigation lands is funded by developers, along with money from state and federal sources. The county kicks in several million dollars a year as well. Additional money comes from a half-cent sales tax (called TransNet) approved by county voters in 2004 for transportation projects and associated mitigation.

Government leaders have discussed putting an additional sales tax increase on the county ballot. The "Quality of Life" measure would raise more money for environmental projects, including North County MSCP land acquisition. But in light of the recession, local officials say the measure may not get to voters.

"The public has to want this," said Whalen, noting that TransNet barely passed in 2004 despite the building industry's heavy financial backing. Today, he said, builders do not have the money to finance a campaign.  

Environmental groups such as the Endangered Habitats League support the proposed North County MSCP.

"San Diego County has been a leader in habitat planning statewide," said Silver, whose group sits on an advisory board for the North County MSCP. "This is the first plan that I know of that is including agricultural land as part of the habitat preserve for connectivity or buffers."   

But Silver said his group still wants specific language in the MSCP to protect core areas, such as Rancho Guejito. He said a main concern is preserve fragmentation if areas like Rancho Guejito are developed.

One question remains unanswered as the county moves forward on the MSCP for the North County: Do MSCPs save rare and endangered species?

"We don't know yet," Silver said. "Management and monitoring is less a priority early on than acquisition is. We aren't going to know if these plans will work for 100 years."

A first draft of the North County MSCP was released in February. Another draft and the environmental impact report/environmental impact statement for the program is scheduled to be released in October. The package could be brought to the county's Board of Supervisors for approval in late 2010.

A third county MSCP – for the more rural East County region – should be completed in 2011, Oberbauer said. Major fires that impacted San Diego County twice since 2003 have slowed completion of the MSCPs, as the county's planning department focused resources on helping people rebuild, he explained.

Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (213) 804-2750.
Tom Oberbauer, San Diego County Planning and Land Use Department, (858) 694-3701.
Jim Whalen, Alliance for Habitat Conservation, (619) 683-5544.
John Brindle, City of Escondido, (760) 839-4671.
Multiple Species Conservation Program: