San Jacinto Wildlife Area threatened by massive housing development
By JIM MATTHEWS
A huge 25,000-person development with over 8,000 new homes along the south edge of the San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Lakeview is on the verge of being approved by the Riverside County Planning Commission. The near-3,000-acre development has been in the works since 2002 when the first property was acquired and planning began.
In 2012, the environmental plan for the huge project was found to be inadequate by a judge after several lawsuits were filed against the development, but after five years of work and revisions a new EIR was posted Aug. 7 this year addressing most of the concerns in the original lawsuits. Since the 2012 proposal, the preferred plan has scaled back the size of the development from 11,350 units to 8,725 units in an effort to gain county approval. Of special import to the wildlife area, all housing north of Ramona Expressway (right along the wildlife area boundary) has been eliminated but there is still commercial development adjacent to the wildlife area.
At the Riverside County Planning Commission meeting Wednesday this past week, public testimony on the development was taken, and refuge manager Scott Sewell with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said that “some things are still not adequately addressed” in the plan to protect the wildlife area, including adequate buffers, illegal trespassing and off-road vehicle use, fencing, invasive species (pets), noise, flooding, and interference with wildlife area management.
Jeff Volbert, a spokesperson with the California Waterfowl Association, explained the critical nature of the San Jacinto Wildlife Area for waterfowl and shore birds in the Pacific Flyway.
“In Southern California, very little of this habitat remains and San Jacinto is a very important part of that habitat. We believe there needs to be a greater concern on the mitigation measures….[and we] urge the county to work to assure the project does not encroach on the wildlife area.”
A number of hunters spoke at the meeting voicing concerns about a 25,000-person community on the wildlife area’s doorstep. The biggest two concerns were that the wildlife and habitat management would suffer and that hunting in the rural area could be eliminated. Hunters encouraged the planning commission to take measures to assure the heritage continues and protect or even enhance the wildlife area.
Phillip Wasz, a Redlands hunter and biologist, said he was concerned about “the effect of the project on our hunting heritage.” Wasz pointed out that an average of 4,000 hunters use the area for waterfowl hunting each year, which brings in about $80,000 to the Department of Fish and Wildlife in day-use fees.
While the developer, The Villages of Lakeview, spokespeople have repeatedly said they want to protect hunting, Wasz said he was “not confident that the [future] residents won’t stop hunting” without more protection to the wildlife area and hunting in the planning process.
This is not the only development proposed that threatens the wildlife area. A nearly-as-large development on the northern edge of the wildlife area, originally known as Moreno Highlands, is also still a future threat.
While this meeting was originally set to be a decision meeting by the Planning Commission, Commission staff asked the commission members to defer the vote until the Oct. 4 meeting. Additional comments will be taken at that meeting.
There was also a large contingent of Nuevo and Lakeview’s current residents there protesting the development, asking the county to stop the urban sprawl and protect their rural lifestyle.
Sadly, that is not what planning commissions and Boards of Supervisors do in Southern California. You would be hard pressed to find a major protect of this magnitude and with this much investment behind it to be denied anywhere in the state. They might tweak the edges of the plans and try to address the major concerns, but ultimately the plans and developments move forward.
What needs to happen at this stage of the game is for the wildlife area to get as much benefit from the development as possible. That can happen on two fronts.
First, the master plan can assure that future residents know they will be living on the edge of an actively managed wildlife area that creates wetlands and has lots of wildlife. Wildlife area waterfowl will land and crap in their swimming pools. They might hear distant gunshots from the dog training and hunting areas. Mosquitos will be an issue at times. The residents have to know this and agree not to try to infringe on how the wildlife area is managed.
Second and even more importantly, the state, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts need to get something in return for putting up with a major development on the boundary of this wildlife area, a development that will have significant negative impacts. As mitigation, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife needs to negotiate a couple of things. The most important is water. The Villages of Lakeview, via county and state requirements on the development, need to assure that the wildlife area have access – at no charge – to the treated waste water that will be generated by the new community.
Water is the lifeblood of the wildlife at San Jacinto, and it already using reclaimed water for its wetlands and wet soil management areas. With additional water from the Villages of Lakeview, the wildlife area could actually expand its core mission, flooding more ponds, marshes, farming additional acreage, and perhaps even keeping water in Mystic Lake year around. This simple addition to the master plan would help mitigate for much of the lost agriculture and open space around the state wildlife area, property that is currently being used by the same wildlife that uses the state land.
Sewell also spoke about how the state would love to acquire adjacent lands to expand the wildlife area and create wildlife corridors between existing protected lands. Riverside County already has an existing habitat conservation program developers pay into to purchase mitigation lands, and it needs to work with the state to prioritize acquisitions to benefit the wildlife area as mitigation for the Villages of Lakeview.
In the scheme of things, the money it would cost to guarantee a nearly unlimited water supply for the wildlife area in perpetuity and to purchase additional lands to expand the wildlife area’s footprint is chump change when factored against the value of the development and the tax dollars generated.
The developers and county could showcase their commitment to sound development and planning by doing these two simple things to help improve the San Jacinto Wildlife Area. It would be both metaphorical and literal feathers in their caps.
Comments on the development plan and environmental document can be directed at the county’s project planner Russell Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be reached by phone at 951-955-3025. A final decision on accepting the plan could be made at the Wednesday, Oct. 4, meeting of the Riverside Planning Commission.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.]