Business / Economy

State Fish & Wildlife answers accusations that it was responsible for Del Webb canceling project

Spokesman details its involvement in now-canceled 1,100 home development at San Juan Oaks

Ever since it was announced that the proposed Del Webb project, involving some 1,100 homes for seniors that the county approved last November, was canceled by parent company, Pulte Group, rumors and conjectures, primarily instigated by San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho, have run rampant with most of the blame falling on State Fish and Wildlife.

In BenitoLink’s July 13 story, Botelho said, “The State of California has a runaway, horrible Department of Fish and Wildlife that has done irreparable harm to San Benito County. They’re an agency that takes their duties to extremes that is beyond reason and without common sense.”

BenitoLink contacted State Fish and Wildlife to ask for a response to Botelho’s accusations. Jordan Traverso, Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, responded to emailed questions. She said she had passed the questions to wildlife experts, who responded through his office. The following are the questions and the department’s official responses:

BenitoLink: What was Fish and Wildlife’s involvement in the Del Webb project?

Fish and Wildlife: Like with other similar projects in the state, our involvement is:

Review comments in the environmental document, consult with the proponents on the application for permits, work with the project proponent’s biologists on site surveys and review the permit application.

Over many years and many biological surveys a biologist hired by the project proponent and consulting for the project discovered the salamander to be present and breeding in at least six seasonal ponds and present throughout the site.

After hearing those results, the County of San Benito included acquisition of an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) as a mitigation measure in its environmental document for the project if salamander habitat would be disturbed. As a result, Pulte Homes and San Juan Oaks, LLC decided they couldn’t proceed with the project without disturbing the salamander habitat, so they decided to get an ITP, and sent us the application for one.

Over the past six months, CDFW consulted with the project applicants regarding the avoidance, minimization and mitigation necessary, and to assure the funding was there for the mitigation to be met. 

BenitoLink: Did Fish & Wildlife ask for a $12 million set-aside for mitigation, and, if so, what animal was involved? What is the legal reasoning for such a figure?

F&W: By law (specifically, the California Endangered Species Act and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)), the way it works is when ITPs are issued, there is a requirement for applicants (often developers, like the applicants in this case) to purchase other suitable habitat that will be saved as habitat in perpetuity for management of the species that will be impacted.

The permanent conservation and the funding for management of replacement habitat must either be completed before breaking ground (under the CDFW issued ITP) or the project applicant can provide to CDFW security funding that CDFW will release when the replacement habitat lands are set aside and protected by the applicant.

You can think of it as a refundable deposit (usually in the form of a letter of credit or cash deposit) that we hold until the mitigation obligation is met. In the case of permit default (meaning the mitigation obligation is NOT met), then CDFW has sufficient money to purchase the mitigation lands, fence and manage in perpetuity for the species. 

In this case, $11.9 million was required for land purchase and money to fence, remove invasive species, etc., and manage in perpetuity for the benefit of the California tiger salamander.

BenitoLink: Claims have been made by Supervisor Botelho that Fish and Wildlife is out of control and is the reason that the Del Webb project was canceled. How does the department answer his charges?

F&W: On May 9, 2016, we issued an ITP to Pulte Homes Corporation and San Juan Oaks, LLC (at the time, they requested to be joint permittees). That ITP authorized the San Juan Oaks Project to “incidentally take” California tiger salamander, a species listed both state and federally as threatened. This means that the project was permitted to continue even though it might result in the destruction of some of these salamanders. 

The ITP was returned to CDFW (unsigned by Pulte Homes) with a letter stating Pulte Homes was rescinding its ITP application. A new application for the project was received by CDFW on July 28, 2016, from San Juan Oaks, LLC, requesting that they be the sole permittee. CDFW is now reviewing the new application.

We have not received notification that the project has been canceled. Your inquiries were the first we have heard of it.

BenitoLink: Supervisor Botelho also said Fish and Wildlife is responsible for the delays in the Panoche Solar Farm project. What is the status of that from the department’s perspective?

F&W: CDFW permitted the Panoche Solar Project in November 2015.

BenitoLink: What is Fish and Wildlife doing to inform the public of its decisions in cases like these?

F&W: Per CEQA, before the ITP can be issued, documents related to the ITP must be circulated for public review and comment. That happened in 2013. That year, the final certification of the San Juan Oaks Specific Plan Subsequent Environmental Impact Report was released.

That report fully disclosed the process and results of the biological surveys that were conducted on the project site in which the salamanders, and the ponds that they were breeding in, were found, in addition to other habitat they were using for mobility between breeding pools and for refugia (an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas).

It also discussed habitat that would be lost and that California tiger salamander mortality would occur as a result of the project. This is why the applicants sought an ITP.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]