On March 12 the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved a series of new ordinances that apply to certain properties within specific areas in the unincorporated county identified as important for supporting local wildlife. These areas are now designated as either part of the Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor (HCWC) or Critical Wildlife Passage Areas (CWPA).

The new ordinances became controversial because some landowners with impacted properties view this plan as a violation of their property rights. On the other side, environmental and conservation organizations point to the need to ensure biodiversity in the region.

VCReporter: What are wildlife corridors and why are they needed?

Rivers: Wildlife corridors are pathways between habitat areas needed for various species to survive. For example, mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains need to be able to move across populated areas of Ventura County to reach the open spaces of the Los Padres National Forest. Wildlife biologists identified these pathways across the county and recommended putting in place protections to ensure they remain viable pathways for wildlife into the future.

“Protecting and fostering wildlife corridors are a central tenant of our long-term plan to assure abundant, diverse and healthy wildlife populations persist across our wider Ventura County region,” said Sean Anderson Ph.D., professor and Chair of the Environmental Science and Resource Management Department at California State University, Channel Islands. “These key animal rivers or animal lifelines improve genetic diversity and ecological functioning [across] a range of ecological communities from the coast to our inland mountain peaks.”

These corridor areas are threatened by development and increased human activity. Three critical areas are included in the CWPA — Oak View, Simi Hills and the Tierra Rejada Valley.

What is an overlay zone?

An overlay zone is a set of ordinances that apply certain rules and restrictions to the properties within it. Overlay zones can be used for various reasons, including managing flood and fire prone areas.

What do landowners have to do now if their property is in the overlay zone?

Right now, nothing. All existing buildings, fences, barns, sheds, houses and any other existing development is not affected. Landowners have three years from the date the ordinances take effect to ensure their outdoor lighting complies with the rules. Outdoor lights must be shielded or pointed down, on motion sensors and timers, and turned off by 10 p.m. or when people are no longer using a space.  Security and safety lighting are allowed, and all parties and events can be lit.

Commercial agriculture, nursery and grazing activities are exempt. Temporary lighting for construction and oil and gas operations are also exempt.

Landowners who plan to build new structures or apply for new land uses on their property will have to consider these rules when developing their plans.

What type of development is prohibited in the wildlife corridors?

Technically nothing is prohibited, but now some buildings based on location, lighting and fencing may require a lengthier review process. During the March 12 hearing, Supervisor Linda Parks, District 2, pointed out the ordinances create a process that “incentivizes” complying with the rules of the new overlay zones. When landowners create a plan for building on their land that aligns with the new rules, they can get permits through the ministerial process. That is essentially an “over the counter” permit process in which the applicant has to comply with the requirements and the county must grant the permit.

If a landowner in the new overlay zones wants to build something — for example a new barn within the 200-foot waterway buffer zone — they will now have to apply for a discretionary permit. A discretionary permit usually takes longer and costs the applicant more money; even when all studies are done, the county has a choice, or discretion, about whether it is approved or not.

Will the county now be building freeway crossings for wildlife?

No. The new ordinances don’t create any new programs, and the county is unable to build crossing or underpasses at freeways because the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) manages the state freeways. Plans are currently in the works for a crossing over the 101. And environmental organizations point to this plan as a way to help bring more funds to the area to create more freeway crossings for wildlife.

Do the corridors impact the homeless encampments in the river beds?

No. While the wildlife corridor ordinances do create restrictions for new development in the riparian habitat along both the Santa Clara and Ventura Rivers, no new laws were added relating to homeless people living in the river bottoms.

Why did two supervisors vote against the wildlife corridors?

Supervisors Kelly Long and Bob Huber voted against the wildlife corridors. Both said they had concerns about impacts to property owners.

“In principle, I am not opposed to the idea of a wildlife corridor. However, as with many complex land use issues, the devil is often in the details,” said Long responding by email to the VC Reporter. She pointed to the unanimous recommendations of the Ventura County Planning Commission, which were largely discarded by the majority on the Board. “Had the Board been willing to incorporate all of the planning commission recommendations and engaged in good-faith deliberations to address some additional concerns, the wildlife corridor may have had unanimous support.”

The planning commission recommendations included excluding the Tierra Rejada Valley from the Critical Wildlife Passage Area, and approving a smaller, 100-foot waterway buffer.

At the March 12 hearing Huber stated several reasons for not supporting the corridors. He said he believed the overlays would “have a negative impact on property values” and suggested the county explore “other ways to increase genetic diversity” among animal populations before restricting property rights. He also pointed to the fact that “there is no review process or sunset date” for the wildlife corridor overlays, so that there would be a mechanism for the county to review the ordinances and ensure they were effective.

What groups support and opposed this ordinance?

Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) and Protect the Harvest, an Indiana-based organization, stated opposition to the wildlife corridors stating the plan constituted a “taking” of land, and representatives from both groups indicated that, if approved, a legal challenge was likely.

Environmental and conservation organizations supported the ordinance, including California Chaparral Institute, California Trout, California Native Plant Society, Center for Regenerative Agriculture, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Friends of the Ventura River, Green Latinos, Los Padres ForestWatch, The Nature Conservancy, The Raptor Center, Ventura Audubon, Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation and Ventura County Wildlife Trackers.

Ventura County info on wildlife corridors: www.ventura.org/wildlife_corridor