Habitat Conservation Plans

A New Tool to Resolve Land Use Conflicts
Timothy Beatley, September 1, 1995

As sprawling, low-density development patterns consume thousands of acres of natural habitat, the force of urban growth is increasingly bumping up against the need to protect biodiversity. The fastest growing states and regions in the South and West are also those with high numbers of endemic species, and species endangered or threatened with extinction.

One tool that has emerged for reconciling species-development conflicts is the habitat conservation plan (HCP). Authorized under Section 10 of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), HCPs allow for limited “take” of listed species in exchange for certain measures to protect and restore habitat. These plans vary in their geographical scope from a single parcel or landowner to large areas involving many landowners and multiple governmental jurisdictions.

The HCP mechanism grew out of a controversy over development plans on San Bruno Mountain in the Bay Area of California that threatened several species of butterflies, including the federally listed mission blue. A collaborative planning process generated a biological study of the butterflies’ habitat needs and a conservation plan that allowed some development in designated nodes while setting aside about 87 percent of the butterfly habitat as permanent open space. The HCP also included a funding component, procedures for carefully monitoring development and minimizing its impact, and a long-term program of habitat restoration.

The positive experience of San Bruno led to a 1982 amendment to the ESA specifically allowing HCPs. Since then, their use has grown slowly but steadily. About 40 plans have been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and another 150 are in progress, most of them initiated in the last five years.

The Typical HCP Process

Regional habitat conservation plans usually follow a similar process. They start with the formation of a steering committee with representation from the environmental community, landowners and developers, local governments, and state and federal resource management agencies, among others. Frequently, consultants are hired to prepare background biological and land use studies as well as the actual plan and accompanying environmental documentation. The content of these plans can vary substantially depending on the species and potential threats at issue, but most create habitat preserves through fee-simple acquisition or land dedication. Plans also include provisions for habitat management, ecological restoration, and research and monitoring. Much of the deliberation in preparing a plan centers on how much habitat must be preserved, the boundaries and configuration of proposed preserves, how funds will be generated to finance the plan, and which entities or organizations will have management responsibility for the protected habitat once secured.

While the HCP process has encountered problems, the experience to date suggests it can be a viable and constructive mechanism for resolving species-development conflicts. For the development community, the stick of ESA brings them to the table and keeps them there, realizing that without a strong plan any development might be jeopardized. For the environmental community, the plan represents a way to generate funds to acquire habitat that would be difficult to raise otherwise. The HCP process, thus, provides a useful pressure valve under the ESA–a tool to provide flexibility in what is frequently criticized as being an overly rigid and inflexible law.

Successes and Concerns

From the perspective of preserving biodiversity, the plans, even those not officially adopted or approved, have lead to the acquisition of important habitat. The Coachella Valley HCP in California sets aside three preserves totaling nearly 17,000 acres of desert habitat to protect the fringe-toed lizard. Other plans preserve biologically rich hardwood hammocks in the Florida Keys, desert tortoise habitat in Nevada, and forested habitat for the northern spotted owl in California. The ambitious Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan in Austin, Texas, would protect more than 75,000 acres of land, including a newly created 46,000 acre national wildlife refuge. Though this plan has encountered political and financial obstacles, more than 20,000 acres have already been secured.

One of the key concerns about HCPs is the effectiveness of their conservation strategies, especially whether the amount of habitat set aside is sufficient to ensure the survival of threatened species. The long-term ecological viability of preserves is another problem, because many will become mere “postage stamps” surrounded by development. These concerns suggest that more habitat should be protected, that preserves should be configured in larger, regional blocks, and that plans should seek to protect multiple rather than single species within broad ecosystem functions. The Balcones example suggests a positive direction for future HCPs in its emphasis on a regional, multi-species approach, including endangered migratory songbirds, cave-adapted invertebrates and plant species.

Another criticism of HCPs is that they have failed to change the ways we allow development to occur because they generally accept the current pattern of low-density sprawl and wasteful land consumption. In addition, it often takes four or five years before a plan can be prepared and approved. Even given that seemingly long timeframe, plans are often based on limited biological knowledge.

One of the most difficult issues in the HCP process is funding. Habitat acquisition in fast-urbanizing areas is extremely expensive. The Coachella Valley plan cost $25 million; the Balcones plan could cost more than $200 million. Most plans are funded through a combination of federal, state and local funds, with some private funding. At the local level the plans usually impose a mitigation fee assessed on new development in habitat areas ranging from a few hundred dollars per acre to the $1950 per acre in the case of the Stephens’ kangaroo rat HCP in Southern California.

Ideas for future funding sources include the creation of habitat acquisition revolving funds (similar to state revolving funds for financing local sewage treatment plant construction) and the use of special taxing districts designed to capture land value increases of property located adjacent to habitat preserves. Greater reliance needs to be placed on less expensive alternatives than fee-simple acquisition, such as transfers of development rights, tradable conservation credits, mandatory clustering and other development controls.

The Future of HCPs

The considerable progress in habitat conservation made through this mechanism to balance development and conservation could be halted if current proposals in Congress to substantially weaken ESA prevail. Clearly it is the “teeth” of ESA that gets opposing parties to the bargaining table. Without a strong ESA, there will be little reason to expect this form of collaborative habitat conservation to occur.

The experience to date suggests that flexibility does exist under current law, and that the problems encountered with HCPs do require some fine tuning. The challenge is to make the HCP process an even more effective tool for conserving biodiversity. At the same time, if habitat conservation is incorporated into local comprehensive plans, then new development can be steered away from important habitat areas and public investment decisions can minimize potential species-development conflicts.

Timothy Beatley is chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and the author of Habitat Conservation Planning: Endangered Species and Urban Growth, University of Texas Press, 1994. He spoke at the Institute’s May 1995 meeting of the Land Conservation in New England Study Group.

Additional information in printed newletter:
Map: Balcones Canyonlands, Austin, Texas. Source: Adapted from maps by Butler/EH&A Team, City of Austin Environmental and Conservation Services, Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, Preapplication Draft, Austin, 1992