Hoping to preserve endangered species while also streamlining permits for new housing, roads and flood control, five government agencies in Santa Clara County are steaming ahead with an unprecedented attempt to balance conservation and construction over the next 50 years.

If approved, the idea, known as a "habitat conservation plan," would raise $938 million in the next half-century from developer fees, government agencies, private donations, and state and federal grants. The money would be used to purchase 45,000 acres across Santa Clara County -- an area that, if combined, would be five times the size of Grant Ranch County Park.

The goal: to help keep 21 struggling local plant and animal species from extinction, including the San Joaquin kit fox, western pond turtle, golden eagle and bay checkerspot butterfly.

Environmental groups and some elected officials call the strategy a prudent example of big-picture planning. They say it will help ensure that money developers already must provide to offset the damage they to do 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.

But as the plan moves closer to key votes next year at the San Jose City Council, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and other agencies, it is beginning to encounter significant political pushback. Critics, including farmers and ranchers, say it would create a costly new bureaucracy. Last week, the Gilroy City Council voted 4-3 to pull out of the process, with one council member calling it "salamander ransom."

Supporters say dealing with the Endangered Species Act on a case-by-case basis is worse than having one large strategy.

"A habitat plan is difficult, frustrating and expensive, but the worst thing is to not have it," said Ken Schreiber, a former Palo Alto planning director who is managing the process under a contract with Santa Clara County. "The problems that it solves make it all worth it."

If approved, the plan would affect 520,000 acres -- about 62 percent of Santa Clara County, from San Jose to the San Benito County line.

Developers would pay fees for new projects. Owners of ranchlands would pay $19,720 per acre for each acre of new development. Owners of agricultural lands, including vineyards or row crops, would pay $13,790 per acre, and owners of smaller vacant sites between half an acre and 10 acres would pay $4,930 per acre. Urban residents who own less than half an acre would pay no fee.

The money would buy land or development rights over dozens of properties from willing sellers for endangered species. In many cases, it would enlarge existing parks or open spaces.

Critics say the idea is too broad, particularly in a difficult economy.

"Most of our concerns have to do with cost. A billion dollars is pretty hefty," said Jennifer Williams, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. "We're concerned it will become another government bureaucracy which will do a poor job of managing the lands."

Williams noted that only about 8 percent of projects each year in Santa Clara County encounter endangered species issues, and that if enough ranchland is purchased for endangered species and taken out of farming, that will diminish agriculture countywide.

"I'm not sure we should create an entire new bureaucracy and expense for 8 percent of the projects in the county," she said. "It's not like, if we don't do this plan, the 21 species affected are going to go extinct. They are still protected under state, federal and local laws."

Don Gage, a former county supervisor who now is chairman of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, called the plan a good idea that will cut red tape and costs in the long run.

"It's not a bureaucracy. What we are trying to do is preserve habitat that shouldn't be developed," Gage said. "For that, we have to purchase the property. It brings control back to local government agencies without having to go through the federal wildlife agencies every time."

The plan was first suggested 10 years ago by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when concern about the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly threatened to significantly delay the projects to add a third lane to Highway 101 between San Jose and Morgan Hill, a Cisco (CSCO) campus in Coyote Valley and the Highway 85-101 interchange.

Five agencies are working on it: San Jose, Santa Clara County, Morgan Hill, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Valley Transportation Authority. If approved by all of them next year, it would allow public agencies and private developers to obtain permits from local government to harm or kill endangered species without having to go through federal or state approval for each project. In exchange, and as with the more than 400 similar "habitat conservation plans" nationwide, the local agencies would have to collect fees to buy and restore lands to help boost endangered species populations nearby.

Nine years after President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, Congress altered it to allow the habitat plans after complaints that individual animals and plants were delaying dams, roads and other projects.

Santa Clara County's draft plan has been in the works for six years, with dozens of public meetings. In December, a draft plan and environmental study, totaling more than 2,000 pages, were released for a 120-day public comment period that ends Monday.

"When you save a landscape for tiger salamander, you are saving it for golden eagles, and bald eagles, and red-tailed hawks, and lots of other species," said Bob Power, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. "We're going to pay the $900 million over the next 50 years anyway, whether it is one project at a time, or as a concerted, well-thought-out habitat conservation plan."

Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.

If YOU're INTERESTED
The deadline for comments on the draft plan is Monday. To read it, go to www.scv-habitatplan.org.