Public comment soon will be sought on Pima County’s application for a federal permit that will help ensure the development community and other property owners don’t run into long construction delays and rack up additional costs when new species are granted endangered status.
With the Endangered Species Act making it illegal to take any action that could adversely impact endangered species, Pima County has prepared a “Multi-Species Conservation Plan” to meet the requirements of a Section 10 permit under the Act. The permit is designed to head off some of the uncertainty and delays that occurred in 1999 when 61,000 acres of private land were designated as critical habitat for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.
Although the owl was delisted in 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is continually assessing new listings. The desert tortoise, for example, is potentially in the mix, a species that has a larger distribution in Pima County than the pygmy owl.
The County’s permit would provide the County with blanket permission for covered actions given the appropriate mitigation measures for the unintended “take” – accidental harming or killing – of a threatened or endangered species while engaged in the normal course of doing county business.
The permit would allow residential and commercial developers to piggyback on the County’s approval, instead of having each individual property owner work through the process with the federal government. Ultimately, that would save cost and time and create a predictable regulatory environment. It is likely to be even more valuable as more species fall under federal protection.
This “insurance policy” that protects the County and its participating property owners is only available because of the large bank of open space that the County has purchased over the past decade, most notably through the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and open space bonds approved by voters. That open space will serve as mitigation by offsetting land disturbances elsewhere over the life of the 30-year permit.
While development interests will have greater regulatory certainty, environmental interests have assurance that the open space lands used as mitigation for species impacts will be protected in perpetuity and that their conditions will be monitored.
“Even though the construction sector has been more affected in this economic downturn than any other part of the labor force, there is no doubt that Pima County will continue to attract new growth,” said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. “It is our hope that having regulatory certainty will assist in the recovery of the development and construction sector.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the impacts of granting the permit to Pima County through the release of a draft “environmental impact statement.” The release of the impact statement is at the discretion of the Service, but is expected soon.
A 90-day comment period will follow, which is twice as long as the standard comment period. The County requested the additional time in order to ensure there is adequate time for review and feedback on the plan. The Service will hold at least one public meeting about the environmental impact statement.
Once the County knows the Service’s schedule for the public release of the draft impact statement, the County’s Office of Sustainability and Conservation will host meetings in each supervisorial district to provide more detail and to answer questions about the County’s proposal, which is just one of several permit alternatives the Service is evaluating in the impact statement.
For more information on the proposal, including answers to frequently asked questions, please visit the County’s site at http://www.pima.gov/cmo/sdcp/MSCP/MSCP.html