New Approach to Regional Development and Environmental Protection
Bexar County officials recently hosted a meeting to begin discussing a new approach to regional development and environmental protection that will be known as the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan. The new approach is seen as a way to provide endangered species habitat protection while also providing developers with a streamlined approval process for their projects.
Although leaders and citizens in San Antonio have demonstrated a strong commitment to protection of the Edwards Aquifer and endangered species, cities like Helotes could present a major difficulty in developing a successful plan.
The idea of a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP) was first offered by officials in the summer of 2008, in response to concerns about rampant development around Camp Bullis. The plan would involve preparing detailed maps of potential habitats for 31 endangered plants and animals in eight counties. By extension, protecting these habitats would also help protect the Edwards Aquifer and Camp Bullis. Using regional habitat assessment maps, developers could easily determine the likelihood that a proposed project would destroy habitat, and they could contribute funds or purchase mitigation lands from a bank established for that purpose. The process could take as little as several weeks, instead of the several years it takes to receive permits when developers pursue them on their own. Such a plan would mitigate reductions in endangered species habitats while providing developers with a clear roadmap to legally advance their projects.
Currently, almost no land is set aside as required by the Endangered Species Act when developers encounter endangered species habitats. When habitats are encountered, developers have several choices:
1. Be a midnight-bulldozing nose-thumbing Endangered Species Act violator and risk fines and imprisonment. This choice has been surprisingly popular. The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA) estimates that since 1990, over 10,000 acres that very likely contained endangered species habitats have been lost in Bexar County. Very little land has been set aside by developers. Prosecution under the Endangered Species Act is mainly a hollow threat. There have been no successful prosecutions at all, so developers have no reason to believe the risk of fines and imprisonment is real. They simply bring in the bulldozers. Once habitats are destroyed, it is impossible for U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to prove they ever existed, so no lawsuit can be pursued.
2. Hire an environmental assessment firm that will give you the answer you want, and present regulators with a professional looking document that attests no habitat exists. This choice has also been very popular. It’s slightly better than midnight-bulldozing, but almost no one believes that vast areas of Bexar County did not previously contain large areas of golden-cheeked warbler habitat.
3. Developers that choose a legal and ethical route may apply for and obtain a Section 10A permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to “take” endangered species habitat. This process takes a minimum of 3 to 4 years and usually requires mitigation whereby other lands containing habitat are purchased and protected by the developer, in exchange for destroying habitats on the proposed project site. Or,
4. Developers may obtain permission to “take” habitat under a Section 10A umbrella through participation in a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan if one has been developed and approved for the project area.
Under Option 4, one or several counties and other jurisdictions that want to participate develop a Conservation Plan that outlines exactly what developers are allowed to do and what sort of mitigation is required. Essentially, developers use a pre-approved Section 10A permit, and they pay into a mitigation bank which provides funds for the purchase of good quality, occupied habitat. if this process is available, developers often prefer it because they can obtain permission to legally take habitat much quicker than when dealing directly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
When a similar RHCP was developed in Travis County near Austin, it took almost a decade. In Bexar County, officials are hoping it can be achieved in 2 years. For a plan to be effective, participation by many jurisdictions will be needed, and cities and counties must make a commitment to be a partner in the plan before it is submitted for approval.
This need for widespread participation may prove to be a stumbling block, because many jurisdictions are reluctant to do anything that could be remotely construed as a limit or roadblock to developers. Many developers are pretty happy with the way things are right now, and many local government officials interpret their public service responsibility as mainly being of service to developers, not participating in regional environmental protection initiatives.
For example, in the City of Helotes, which sits on an important recharge stream, the current political climate is antithetic to regional environmental protection and conservation goals. Most of the progress made by previous “green” City councils under Mayor Jon Allan has been systematically reversed in favor of environmentally insensitive development schemes. Residents and citizens that worked toward aquifer protection by establishment of parks and open spaces were openly villified by Helotes Mayor Tom Schoolcraft and the City Council and summarily dismissed from City committees. Grants intended for parks and open spaces were declined. Comments provided by expert scientists and hydrogeologists, including an Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) Board member, were publicly ridiculed and systematically ignored. In 2007, Council member Rich Whitehead publicly argued in favor of 100 percent impervious cover over the Edwards recharge zone. Committees that used to provide public input regarding development have been dissolved. Most of the remaining committees have not been meeting on a regular basis. Important development decisions are relegated to the consent agenda and rubber-stamped in lightning-fast meetings without public discussion. When public discussion is allowed, Mayor Schoolcraft hand-picks who may speak. Rezoning of sensitive land to allow intensive development is the norm.
As it turns out, Helotes might be particularly important to the plan’s success. For habitat protections to be effective, large contiguous areas are much preferred over small, fragmented ones, and the area around Helotes offers a prime opportunity. Helotes has Camp Bullis on one side, Government Canyon on the other, and there are numerous large tracts in between that were purchased with funds approved by San Antonio voters for Edwards Aquifer protection. The logical strategy to develop a large contiguous area of protected habitat is to “connect the dots” between the already protected lands. In other words, the area around Helotes may be the epicenter of future mitigation purchases, especially if other counties decide not to participate.
Will Helotes take advantage of an opportunity to help lead the nation in demonstrating forward-thinking environmental protection initiatives? With the current crop of leaders at City Hall, it doesn’t seem likely.