Backwater swirling

In North Natomas, hawks, snakes and developers do battle over Fisherman’s Lake

Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk President Jude Lamare visits the buffer zone.

Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk President Jude Lamare visits the buffer zone.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“It’s not very impressive.” That’s how a friend summed up his first impression of Fisherman’s Lake. The lake is about a mile west of Interstate 5, south of Del Paso Road in North Natomas. It is two miles long but only 100 feet wide. Half of the lake’s surface is choked with floating rafts of evening primrose, an invasive species of aquatic plant. Cattails and bulrushes stand in the shallow waters at the shore. Small oaks, willows and a few tall cottonwood trees grow out of a thick tangle of blackberry bushes along the lakeside. Narrow gravel roads set atop 4-foot-high levees run down both sides of the lake.

This unimpressive lake is at the center of a battle that pits environmentalists against developers. West of the lake is the 460-acre Fisherman’s Lake Preserve and Restoration Project run by the Natomas Basin Conservancy. East of the lake is a 434-acre tract that soon will become Natomas Central, a new housing development.

The fight is over a strip of land along the east side of the lake that would serve as an open-space buffer zone between the new houses and the lake. The environmentalists insist that the buffer zone should be 800 feet wide while the developer stands firm at 250 feet.

The developer paid a record-breaking $92 million for the land. It is estimated that 766 more homes can be squeezed onto the property with the narrower 250-foot buffer zone. Environmentalists say the lake is priceless and the full 800-foot buffer zone is needed to protect the sensitive wildlife habitat. The lake is home to two threatened species, the giant garter snake and the Swainson’s hawk. There are four hawk nest sites on the lake.

Jude Lamare, president of Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk, sees this battle over the buffer zone as part of a wider conflict. “Clearly,” she said, “our local governments are dominated by landowners who want to acquire agricultural land to pave them over for urban uses at extremely high profit.”

Phil Serna, a representative for AKT Development Corp., which owns a neighboring property also bordering Fisherman’s Lake, views the situation differently. “There’s a great demand for shelter in our region right now,” he said.

Both Lamare and Serna agree that a balance needs to be struck. Serna explained it this way: “What we try to do—and I think we succeed in doing—is trying to strike that balance between finding acreage that’s suitable habitat for human beings as much as suitable habitat for special-status species.”

Fisherman’s Lake is not actually a lake; it’s a natural slough, a backwater arm of the Sacramento River. The arm was amputated from the river around 1915 when levees along the Sacramento and American rivers were completed. The reclamation project allowed the Natomas Basin to emerge high and dry from the wetlands between the rivers. The reclamation board proclaimed, “The sea of floodwaters was replaced by a sea of waving grain.”

Grains and other agricultural products thrived in the rich soil of Natomas, but wildlife numbers declined. Riparian forests were cut down, and the marshes were drained. Giant garter snakes that once hunted frogs, tadpoles and small fish among thousands of acres of bulrushes and cattails now barely managed to survive on the edges of rice fields and along irrigation canals. The snake has been listed as a threatened species since 1971.

The Swainson’s hawks adjusted to the new environment by hunting insects, voles, mice and gophers in the agricultural fields, but finding nesting areas became difficult. The hawks need tall trees undisturbed by human activity to build their nests. Those trees became hard to find as agriculture, and then urbanization, expanded into every corner of the Natomas Basin. The number of California’s Swainson’s hawks has declined by 90 percent. The hawk has been listed as a threatened species in California since 1983. Extinction in California for the Swainson’s hawk is a real possibility.

In 1986, a record flood nearly reclaimed the entire basin. The Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt damaged levees and reinforced existing ones. Finally, around 1998, the Natomas Basin was officially declared safe for development, and the city lifted its moratorium on new construction.

In the 1980s, as a response to increasing urbanization, Sacramento created the North Natomas Community Plan (NNCP), a master plan for development. The first plan was approved by the city council in 1986, but litigation based on environmental inadequacies caused it to be scrapped eventually. A revised NNCP was approved in 1994. The “smart growth” plan included open spaces; employment zones; greenbelts; single-family homes; apartments; and buffer zones around agriculture, wetlands and freeways. A Natomas Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (NBHCP) was created in 1997 to ensure environmental protections.

With the plans worked out and the levees secured, real-estate development began in earnest around 1999. New housing developments sprang up almost annually. First it was Natomas Park, and then came Sundance Lake, Natomas Crossing, Westlake Village and Regency Park. Currently, Heritage Park is under construction.

Natomas Central, on the east side of Fisherman’s Lake, is the next large development. Last year’s $92 million sale of the 434 acres set an all-time high-price record for land sales in the region. Land developer George Tsakopoulos purchased the tract in the early 1980s for about $5,100 an acre and sold it last year for $212,000 an acre. The buyer, K. Hovnanian Forecast Homes Inc., plans to build 1,828 homes on the site. Forecast Homes says only a 250-foot open-space buffer zone between the homes and Fisherman’s Lake is required by the NBHCP. Environmentalists insist that a 2001 legal settlement with the city says the buffer zone should be 800 feet wide.

The 1997 NBHCP was challenged with a lawsuit filed by five environmental groups, including Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk. The groups charged that the plan was out of compliance with several federal and state laws and failed to include guarantees. The environmental groups seemed sure to win in litigation, and rather than stopping development by throwing out the plan and starting over, the city negotiated a settlement in May 2001.

The settlement allowed limited development to continue in exchange for improvement of habitat. Fisherman’s Lake and the adjoining preserve were identified as critical areas for habitat improvement. The city agreed to consider expanding the 250-foot buffer zone at Fisherman’s Lake to 800 feet. However, the language in the settlement said the city would “exercise its best efforts” to complete an environmental review so the city council could vote on the buffer-zone issue within six months—and that was four years ago.

During these past four years, the value of the land has gone up dramatically—both monetarily and environmentally. Only a few miles away, precious hawk habitat and nesting sites were destroyed in 2002. The Sacramento County Airport System bulldozed 60 acres of undeveloped land south of Sacramento International Airport. About 100 trees were removed, including three that were hawk nest sites.

Meanwhile, the 2001 settlement has been under attack from all sides. Lamare and Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk attorney Jim Pachl have found themselves continually refuting arguments from the city planning department, the city attorney’s office and Forecast Homes. The city attorney’s office claims that both federal and state agencies say only a 250-foot buffer is needed to protect the hawks and snakes. The planning department said the 800-foot buffer was a moot point, because the 2001 settlement expired in 2002. Even the original 250-foot buffer came under attack. Forecast Homes claims that the buffer zone is measured from the center of Fisherman’s Lake rather than from the levee along the shore—effectively shrinking the buffer by another 50 feet. The developer warns that the city would have to compensate it $28 million for the land if the buffer is turned into an 800-foot zone.

Lamare and Pachl have dealt with these same arguments for years. They say that neither federal nor state agencies have ever officially stated an opinion on the buffer-zone issue. They also maintain that the buffer-zone provision in the 2001 settlement has never expired and that the edge of the buffer zone has always been measured from the levee road.

As for compensation, Lamare disagrees with the $28 million figure, but regardless of the amount, she has come up with several creative “win-win” ideas that she says would effectively transfer the land at no cost. Some of her ideas include land trades, creating a “nature park” and relocating a very large pond (26.8 acres) into the buffer zone rather than at the center of the housing project as is now planned. Lamare met with the developer to talk over her ideas. “The answer we got from Forecast Homes was ‘We won’t even talk about changes.’”

SN&R put in more than a dozen calls seeking comment from Gregory Thatch, the land-use attorney who represents Forecast Homes, but none were returned.

Last January, Padre Associates Inc., a consulting firm hired by the planning department, completed the environmental review. The report concluded that a 250-foot buffer would be sufficient to protect the hawk’s nest sites. The city Planning Commission (independent of the planning department) reviewed the report and met in February to vote on the buffer issue.

Michael Bradbury, a state biologist who has studied the Swainson’s hawk since 1992 and has logged more than 300 hours of nest observation, questioned the validity of the Padre report before the commission. Bradbury contended that the report “was not supported by Swainson’s-hawk experts, current knowledge or research.” He also said that an 800-foot buffer “would greatly increase the continued nesting viability of Fisherman’s Lake.” Biologist Waldo Holt, a contributing author of the Padre report, was contacted by SN&R but refused to comment.

The Planning Commission voted 7-2 in favor of the 800-foot buffer zone. Commissioner Barry Wasserman, who voted in favor of the enlarged buffer zone, explained his philosophy this way: “I think we’ve reached a point—I hope—in our society where we recognize that undeveloped land has tremendous value.”

The commission’s vote was a victory for environmentalists, but the final decision will be made by a vote of the mayor and the city council. Forecast Homes, AKT and Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk have stepped up their lobbying efforts. Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk began a petition drive and phone banking, asking their supporters to fax, e-mail or phone the mayor and council members. Supervisor Illa Collin helped the environmentalists by making prerecorded phone calls to 30,000 households, according to Lamare. The council will meet to vote on the issue in public hearings at City Hall on June 28 at 7 p.m.