The Tarplant Preserve and Why a Vernal Pool Could Derail the Transit Center
The Planning Commission recently approved plans for the Transit Center that included establishing a two acre preserve on the project site to protect the southern tarplant. The item generated some controversy as the decision limits future development and the costs associated with creating and maintaining the preserve are likely to be substantial. I wondered why the City would spend so much money to protect a plant that already exists at Madrona Marsh and is not even listed by the state as an endangered species.
In order to gain a better understanding, I met with Danny Santana, Senior Planning Associate, from the City of Torrance. Ted Semaan, Engineering Manager, also made himself available for a few follow-up questions. Danny spent over an hour with me in person and on the phone. Through that conversation, I learned a great deal about the complicated challenges the City faces when trying to complete a project of this magnitude. I had a very positive experience meeting with Danny and Ted and I am grateful to them both for taking the time to meet with me.
Danny conveyed that the creation of the preserve was driven by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and was the result of negotiations with that agency. CDFW had raised several concerns about the project site and Danny seemed convinced that if the City didn’t at least offer the preserve, in order to mitigate the impact to the tarplant, that they would be required to complete a site specific Environmental Impact Report (EIR) – the completion of which would cost thousands of dollars and delay the project at a minimum of 7 to 9 months. When approving the matter, it seemed like the Planning Commission was faced with balancing the costs associated with creating the preserve against the costs that would result from delaying the project to complete the EIR. Under those circumstances, approving the preserve made a lot of sense.
Still curious, however, I decided to contact Kelly Schmoker, the designated point of contact for this project from the CDFW. She informed me that the CDFW’s role in this matter was not to act as the “CEQA police,” and that their involvement was limited to providing comments and recommendations only, not mandates. As such, Torrance was not legally bound to adhere to any of their recommendations.
I do believe City staff acted in good faith with regard to the preserve. Their job after all is to offer the plan they best feel will keep the project moving in what can be a very challenging regulatory environment. Given what I learned from CDFW, however, I do wish that the Planning Commission had explored their options a little further as it appears from speaking with CDFW that alternatives that would have been less burdensome to the taxpayer, such as relocating the tarplant to Madrona Marsh, could have been considered without triggering the EIR requirement.
Kelly also indicated that the CDFW was primarily concerned not with the tarplant, but with a 7 acre vernal pool located on the site and the potential it had to be a viable habitat for protected species like the fairy shrimp. As reflected in the CDFW comment letter, the CDFW made the following recommendations with regard to the vernal pool:
1) Conduct wet season surveys to determine if any special-status fairy shrimp occur on the project site;
2) Conduct a survey to determine the presence of spadefoot toad;
3) Avoid the 7 acre on-site vernal pool habitat or mitigate the loss of the habitat at a ratio of no less than 1.5 acres for every acre of impact;
4) Ensure appropriate buffer is left around vernal pools;
5) Establish a monitoring plan for any vernal pool restoration efforts; and
6) Consult with the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) as it appears the vernal pools are subject to regulation under Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.
Torrance considered these recommendations, but ultimately did not adhere to any them as doing so likely would have killed the project entirely. Environmental planning consultants hired by the City also disagreed with CDFW as to whether impacts to the vernal pool needed to be mitigated.
Even though the current plan was approved by the Planning Commission, the project may not yet be completely out of the woods. The final recommendation by CDFW, as reflected above, was for the City to consult with the RWQCB. CDFW thought the vernal pool might be subject to the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. Should that be the case, the City would need to seek a permit from RWQCB to continue to develop the site. I reached out to a representative from the RWQCB provided to me by the CDFW and was told by that person that the RWQCB would be reviewing this matter.