Should conservation require a permit?

Anxiety over land use and habitat management issues along the Sacramento River has hit flood stage. Or so it seems, as the Butte County Board of Supervisors maneuvers to protect its agricultural interests and local land use authority by proposing new regulations that would require property owners to obtain a use permit prior to converting any existing use to open space. In short, they want you to get a permit not to use your land.

The proposed requirement, which is being considered at the county Planning Commission’s Jan. 23 meeting, would apply throughout the county, even though the board is clearly responding to pressure from farmers of the Family Water Alliance to address nuisances such as ground squirrels and insects generated by restoring riparian habitat along the river.

The bigger issue is local land use control. The board’s conservative majority may disparage regulation and hail property rights in general terms, but its three members were the ones who directed the Planning Commission to consider the expansive use permit requirement. It’s an interesting political pressure point, indeed, when self-avowed conservatives turn to land use regulation to solve their political problems.

There has been gloating that the environmentalists are getting theirs, but the responsible questions are: What are the impacts of habitat conservation, and what level of regulation is appropriate to address those impacts?

Is restoring habitat more like operating a farm, which is exempt from county land use review? Or is it more like establishing a commercial center, which can be flatly denied through a use permit requirement if not compatible with surrounding land uses?

The use permit requirement is a blunt regulatory tool, and it could prove unnecessarily painful to local farmers George Nicolas and John Nock. The Nature Conservancy has secured CalFed funding to purchase the farmers’ flood-prone properties, but the deals could be scratched due to uncertainty over whether habitat restoration would actually be permitted with the new regulations.

The Nicolas and Nock properties provide floodwater storage from Rock Creek, an existing need that will only increase as north Chico lays down more buildings, concrete and asphalt and sends more flood flows downstream.

County Counsel Bruce Alpert cited the designation of tens of thousands of acres in Butte County as critical habitat for various vernal-pool plant and animal species as justification for extending the proposed use permit requirement throughout the county. Yet the prevailing wind is that the county will be able to develop more land within the critical habitat areas as it preserves more land for habitat.

Consider the options. Governmental agencies do not compensate developers for set-aside land required to satisfy wetland and endangered-species laws. Conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Sacramento River Partners buy land or conservation easements from willing property owners. Is it really in our best interest to discourage the voluntary preservation of habitat land?