SAN JOSE -- The San Jose City Council on Tuesday is poised to take one of its most important environmental votes in decades on a plan that over the next 50 years would protect habitat for endangered species even as development continues.
San Jose is the last of six governmental agencies in Santa Clara County to take up the Habitat Conservation Plan, an attempt to balance conservation and construction over five decades. If approved, the plan would affect 506,000 acres, almost 60 percent of the county, and raise $665 million, mostly from developer fees, government agencies, state and federal grants and private donations.
The plan seeks to stop 18 threatened local plant and animal species from becoming extinct, including the Bay checkerspot butterfly, California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog and Western burrowing owl.
If approved, many say it will help ensure that money developers already must provide to offset the damage they do to endangered species will be spent in a more efficient way, with less federal involvement rather than on a project-by-project basis with a lot more red tape. The local agencies would collect the fees to buy and restore nearby lands to help boost endangered species populations.
While five other cities or agencies approved the sweeping plan in the fall, San Jose's decision was halted by Mayor Chuck Reed after his concerns that development in San Jose would be hurt if the city agreed to the proposal because some cities nearby wouldn't be held to the stricter standards.
Now that San Jose's issues have been addressed -- and, more important, are supported by major regional developer and environmental interests -- many believe the modified plan stands a good chance of passage.
The updated plan, Reed said, "eliminates the problems of creating a huge competitive disadvantage for San Jose -- it levels the playing field."
Part of the resolution came about after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote individual letters to a handful of cities that were not involved in the Habitat Conservation Plan process that began in 2004, and with whom San Jose competes for development.
Letters to Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Mountain View and Palo Alto advised their officials that large-scale conservation planning along the lines of the Habitat Conservation Plan was preferable to planning individual projects, which is time-consuming and therefore could cause delays.
Sunnyvale Mayor Tony Spitaleri, for one, has objected to the possibility of having to comply with the plan, saying that Sunnyvale should have been at the table before the new plan was being adopted.
For San Jose residents, the plan does a few things, said San Jose's Planning Director Joe Horwedel.
It allows the city to have more certainty as it builds major public projects like bridges and a new sewage treatment plant while maintaining its commitment to be an environmental leader.
"It's one more tool to help protect the hillsides around San Jose and the county from development, and it's providing the dollars and the structure to do that," Horwedel said.
As an example, he pointed to a current project in San Jose's Evergreen area that includes a protected wetland area in the middle of a subdivision. In the past, laws mandated that the wetland area had to be maintained forever. With the Habitat Conservation Plan, he said, the developer's money that would have been spent to protect that piecemeal wetland area would instead be combined to fund larger areas reserved for wetlands.
While Reed's amendments seek to equalize the plan's impact over a wider geographic area in the county, he also wants some high-density areas of San Jose such as downtown, North San Jose and urban villages to be exempt from the plan's proposed nitrogen deposition fee. The new fee is being imposed countywide -- even for communities not included in the conservation plan -- to counter the impact of damage done when nitrogen is emitted from the tailpipes of cars, which blows miles away, eventually altering natural habitats like serpentine soils essential to Bay checkerspot butterfly reproduction in places like Coyote Ridge.
For now, Reed is suggesting that fees would be paid through construction taxes the city already collects from builders.
The Habitat Conservation Plan was first suggested in 2001 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when concern about the endangered Bay checkerspot butterfly threatened to delay projects to add a third lane to Highway 101 between San Jose and Morgan Hill, a Cisco campus in Coyote Valley and the Highway 85-101 interchange.
San Jose, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Santa Clara County, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Valley Transportation Authority ultimately worked together on the project. They will need to review San Jose's amendments.
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.
The Habitat Conservation Plan seeks to stop 18 threatened local plant and animal species from becoming extinct:
Bay checkerspot butterfly
California tiger salamander
California red-legged frog
Foothill yellow-legged frog
Western pond turtle
Western burrowing owl
Least Bell's vireo
San Joaquin kit fox
Tiburon Indian paintbrush
Mount Hamilton thistle
Santa Clara Valley dudleya
Loma Prieta hoita
Metcalf Canyon jewelflower
Most beautiful jewelflower
Source: City of San Jose