by Eva Cicoria
If you’ve hiked the trails of the Palos Verdes Nature Preserve (the Preserve), you’ve enjoyed the scent of sage, the sound of birds calling, and the expansive backdrop of blue sky and sea. You may know something about the history of the establishment of the Preserve and feel gratitude for all who invested so much in that effort. But do you know what protects the Preserve from development? That’s done with conservation easements over the land as well as something called a Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP).
An NCCP enables regulators to protect a precarious ecosystem that could disappear if development over such an ecosystem were to continue unchecked. While an NCCP covers a few decades, a conservation easement is intended to protect the land in perpetuity. A local jurisdiction that adopts an NCCP and agrees to encumber the lands enrolled into its NCCP with conservation easements benefits by getting a streamlined state and federal permit process for loss of species that will result from the jurisdiction’s development projects.
The Rancho Palos Verdes (RPV) City Council approved such an arrangement in 2004 when it approved a draft NCCP. RPV has some large acreage with a threatened ecosystem: coastal sage scrub (CSS), which is habitat for some endangered and at-risk species of birds, butterflies and plants. RPV also has a history of wanting to protect its open space from development. So, RPV committed to enroll into the NCCP lands it already owned in 2004, as well as lands to be acquired with the assistance of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy (PVPLC). In exchange, RPV is allowed to use those lands as mitigation for damage to, or destruction of, habitat caused by development projects both inside and outside of the Preserve.
Since 2004, as lands were acquired by RPV, conservation easements were recorded ostensibly to protect the lands in perpetuity. The parties proceeded as if the NCCP was a done deal—donors contributed funds to support the PVPLC management of the Preserve and volunteers labored to protect and restore the land—yet the NCCP was never formally adopted by the parties, apparently having been held up with the regulatory agencies.
Then, at the end of March of this year, a revised draft NCCP was approved by the RPV City Council. There are significant changes. Principal changes to the NCCP increase how much RPV (itself, and private parties seeking development permits) can “take” (harass, harm or kill) the protected species in the Preserve while decreasing what the costs (mitigation) will be if they exceed the take amount. These take and mitigation numbers are now incorporated by reference into the conservation easements, so when the NCCP changes, the conservation easements will change. Remember that part about “in perpetuity”? The revised NCCP allows significantly more damage to the Preserve than was approved previously, and the conservation easements extend that permitted damage forever.
The parties to the NCCP (RPV, PVPLC, and the regulatory agencies) believe the changes to “the deal” are an improvement. The argument is that more lands have been enrolled into the Preserve than were enrolled previously and, as a percentage, the current take authorization is about the same. But this is not correct. The 2004 NCCP version, by its express terms, already anticipated that more lands would be enrolled, and the 2005 conservation easements were recorded with that understanding.
The conservation easement that will be recorded with final adoption of the NCCP is actually the third variation of the easement for at least part of the Preserve—the large and publicly visible Portuguese Bend Reserve. The first was recorded in 2005. It was replaced by a modified and weaker version in 2011. It is now to be replaced again by a significantly weaker version.
RPV states it needs a new easement because it knows more now about its future projects than it did in 2004. But isn’t that always the case? The point of “in perpetuity” is to protect against the “death by a thousand cuts” that occurs when government and developers continue to chip away at the environment to address their latest desires. The conservation easement is meant to fix land use rights at a point in time so that this constant tinkering does not occur.
It is no coincidence that RPV is currently considering a set of landslide abatement measures that could destroy many acres of habitat within the Portuguese Bend Reserve. The 2011 conservation easement recorded on the Reserve would not allow the amount of degradation that the proposed landslide abatement measures would involve. The recently revised version of the NCCP and soon-to-be substituted conservation easement would. The NCCP and the conservation easement were supposed to prevent bite by bite damage to the natural environment, and yet here we are. It is not conservation if the rules can be changed whenever they become inconvenient.
The NCCP is currently being reviewed further by federal regulators. Eventually the public will have a 60-day opportunity to weigh in, although the commencement date for that period has not been announced. It is our understanding that small changes to the plan may be made during the 60-day period, but any major changes would require another cycle of the federal review process (which is expected to take about one year). RPV may formally adopt the NCCP when it comes back to the city after federal public review.
The public will also have an opportunity to weigh in on the landslide abatement measures under consideration by the RPV City Council. A community meeting on the matter is scheduled for Thursday, June 28, at 6:30PM at Hesse Park.
The public, including through organizations like the Sierra Club, must remain informed and ever vigilant, insisting on transparency in decisions all along and time to assess and react, if we truly want to protect in perpetuity the lands we cherish.