State and federal wildlife agencies approved the Orange County Transportation Authority's ambitious freeway mitigation program as a federal Habitat Conservation Plan and a State of California Natural Communities Conservation Plan.
The effort began in 2006 when, working with conservation groups including EHL, OCTA incorporated a mitigation program into its transportation sales tax renewal, called Measure M2. Recognizing that its freeway widenings and interchange improvements would have environmental impacts, the agency decided to look ahead and identity and fund compensatory land acquisition and restoration projects in advance. By being proactive, OCTA gained efficiencies over cumbersome project–by–project review. This approach would also provide more meaningful mitigation by pooling resources and identifying high value conservation opportunities. Endangered Habitats League has served on the Environmental Oversight Committee (EOC) for the effort since its inception.
OCTA brought on board the Conservation Biology Institute to do a reconnaissance of existing conservation and to create a habitat value ranking system that could be applied to individual properties. OCTA also devised a financing plan which brought in “early money,” critical to taking advantage of timely opportunities. All told, 1,300 acres of prime habitat in Brea, Laguna Beach, Silverado Canyon and Trabuco Canyon have been permanently protected. Wetland, riparian, and coastal sage scrub restoration projects have been implemented on over 400 acres. Acquisitions will resume in about 10 years following build up an endowment to manage the lands in perpetuity. We expect the measure to yield between $100 and $200 million for habitat by the time it expires. Public access is currently guided but may expand over time.
In order to streamline project permitting, particularly for endangered species, OCTA sought status as a federal Habitat Conservation Plan and a State of California Natural Communities Conservation Plan. After meeting these high standards, the signing of these plans was celebrated in June 2017 at O’Neill Regional Plan, which was expanded thanks to the measure. Indeed, many acquisitions filled crucial gaps and realized long–held conservation objectives, such as connecting the existing Southern and Central preserves and expanding Chino Hills State Park. OCTA also worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to incorporate expedited wetlands permitting into the program.
OCTA’s public process exemplified openness and transparency, with regular meetings of the EOC. Landowners were uniformly noticed of the opportunity to sell property, and funds were directed to a variety of geographic locations within the County. EHL commends the OCTA Board of Directors, which exerted constant leadership and support, as well as the agency’s dedicated staff and our federal and state partners.