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Developers grouse about owl habitat

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At less than 10 inches tall and only six ounces in weight, the small burrowing owl is raising some big land-use questions in southeastern San Diego.

“In Otay Mesa, we have a burrowing owl guideline of 1-to-1,” said David Wick, president of National Enterprises. “For every acre we grade, we have to put in one acre of open space, and half of it has to be in Otay Mesa.”

This is putting a financial strain on those wanting to buy land in the area, and some developers aren’t sure why it’s necessary.

“When I moved here and started in the commercial real estate industry, we were aware there were some issues with burrowing owls in Otay Mesa,” said Rob Hixson, senior vice president at CBRE. “At that time people could purchase mitigation land in a land bank. … Then at one point in time, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife decided no more buying into land banks, you have to actually purchase the mitigation land in Otay Mesa.

“It’s funny how tough these birds are, yet how much money is being spent on them, and we’ve never even found out if they’re endangered.”

It turns out, they’re not. Richard Burg, a senior environmental scientist supervisor at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the owls (Athene cunicularia) are neither threatened nor endangered, but are listed as a species of special concern.

“Its populations are becoming smaller and smaller, so it is a special concern. There are declines locally and in central and southern areas and statewide.

“We tried to list it as threatened a number of years back, but because there are populations throughout the state in Central Valley, Imperial County, coastal populations and in the west in general, that’s why it was not listed. At least in San Diego County, and other areas statewide, populations have seen declines in the last 20 years, and one of the big risk factors is habitat loss, or degradation and modification of habitat.”

Otay Mesa has the largest local population of burrowing owls, which is why it has been hit particularly hard with mitigation requirements.

“In Southern California it is a species in decline and is covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so we have to protect the population to the extent that we have it here, and Otay Mesa has one of the most important and largest populations of burrowing owl,” said Livia Borak, attorney at Coast Law Group, one of several environmental organizations suing the City of San Diego to halt development at Brown Field in Otay Mesa, where many burrowing owls nest. “That’s why we think it’s really critical to not build over the habitat.”

Local developers say they understand the importance of preserving the species, but current mitigation standards not only make growth difficult, but create a double-standard.

Hixson said he worked with a client who bought 160 acres of land in Otay Mesa under the impression that he could meet his mitigation requirement by buying into a land bank, a standard that then changed. He paid $37,000 an acre for the original land, and then ended up having to purchase additional land at a rate of 0.5-to-1.

“The 80 acres he had to buy to mitigate the 160 acres cost more that land he originally purchased,” Hixson said. “How does that work into your pro forma?”

This rate would be considered lucky to some like Wick, who say the change in land mitigation requirements between certain areas' 1-to-1 and other parts of Otay Mesa’s 0.5-to-1 is unfair.

“In the city portion of Otay Mesa, their mitigation is 0.5-to-1, so it’s a huge economic benefit,” Wick said. “It’s close to $100,000 an acre, and if you have 40 acres you have to mitigate, you have to spend $4 million. But if it’s in the city its $2 million -- that’s a big economic difference.

“If Otay Mesa has 2,000 acres of land for a tax base and jobs, and half of the mitigation has to occur within Otay Mesa, that means 1,000 acres is open space, so only 1,000 acres will be for jobs- we’ll never get the jobs and tax base we need.”

Burg said he wasn’t too familiar with the mitigation ratio differences, as that falls under the Multiple Species Conservation Program’s jurisdiction and would apply to a variety of flora and fauna. A representative from the MSCP could not be reached for comment.

Wick said yet another point of confusion has been mixed signals from the county and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We have two pending applications with the county now which were deemed complete when the guidelines switched,” he said. “What’s interesting is we have the county approving our mitigation plan, and Fish and Wildlife saying they want 1-to-1. So we’re in a Catch-22 and we can’t move forward until we get them to agree to what the county agreed to.”

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