By Ann Larson, Board Member, Laguna Greenbelt, Inc.
Throughout California and beyond, practitioners of urban planning are waking up to the benefits that come from wildlife corridors – benefits for natural habitats, wildlife, and human society. For more than three decades, Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. and its science advisors have expressed concern for wildlife movement through the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor – a six-mile habitat connection linking two distinct ecological regions with its central potion running through the middle of an urban portion in the City of Irvine. In this area, urban development throughout the twentieth century has resulted in extensive changes to the landscape, leading to areas with significant habitat fragmentation, a development pattern that continues today.
After the City of Irvine worked with a local developer to add the central portion of the Corridor to their zoning code in 2013, and the completion of a wildlife camera study in 2017-2018, it was clear to the group that protections are necessary to ensure long-term connectivity between the coastal region and the mountains region. In researching other cities’/counties’ wildlife corridor regulations, the County of Ventura came to the group’s attention as a promising example for progressive connectivity policy.
Ventura County, like Orange County, has significant developed areas surrounding by undeveloped areas where habitat is fairly intact but is quickly becoming fragmented by roads and development. In 2017, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors expressed concern about manmade impacts to wildlife movement and directed planners to investigate regulations that would assist in maintaining wildlife connectivity from the ocean to the mountains and smaller areas between them.
Two Ordinances, Two Overlay Zones
In March 2019, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved two ordinances that apply to certain properties consisting of approximately 400,000 acres identified as being important for supporting local wildlife. These ordinances established two overlay zones, identified as the Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor (HCWC) and the Critical Wildlife Passage Areas (CWPA), and included regulations to minimize development impacts to wildlife and their habitat. Overlay zones are an additional layer of planning control applied to properties in a clearly defined geographic area and function as tailored zoning districts with their own specialized set of regulations.
During the public hearings, these ordinances became controversial for some landowners and labor organizations. Some of the landowners subject to the proposed regulations viewed them as a violation of their property rights. However, many environmental and conservation organizations regarded these regulations as necessary to ensure biodiversity in the region.
Shortly after approval of these ordinances, a lawsuit was filed by the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business and the California Construction and Industrial Materials Association. Four conservation groups, Los Padres ForestWatch, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Parks Conservation Association, intervened to defend the ordinances. In February 2022, Ventura Superior Court judge, Mark S. Borrell issued a ruling upholding the ordinances. It is believed that these ordinances are the first of their kind in California.
In 2020, these ordinances received an Award of Excellence from the Central Coast Section of the American Planning Association – a prominent professional organization. The jurors noted that the ordinance is “an example to other jurisdictions that are interested in preserving critical linkages and biodiversity through an incentive-based approach to land use planning and regulation.”
Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor Overlay Zone
The stated purpose of the HCWC overlay zone is the preservation of functional connectivity for wildlife and vegetation throughout the overlay zone by minimizing:
- Direct and indirect barriers;
- Loss of vegetation and habitat fragmentation;
- Impacts to those areas that are narrow, impacted, or otherwise tenuous with respect to wildlife movement.
Indirect barriers, such as outdoor lighting, can cause disorientation for nocturnal species, the disruption of feeding, mating, migrating, and the predator/prey balance.
Direct barriers such as fencing, roads, buildings, and removal of native habitat can restrict wildlife movement between habitats, thereby limiting access to essential food and water, and/or blocking access to potential mates. Larger animals, including birds, can become entangled in impermeable fencing and smaller animals can become trapped in cavities within open-top (uncapped) fence posts. To address this, the ordinance contains regulations that minimizes the use of wildlife-impermeable fencing, allowing animals to easily move through fencing.
Another threat to wildlife movement is habitat fragmentation due to urban developments. To minimize habitat fragmentation, the Ventura ordinance requires buffers around surface water features, such as streams and wildlife road crossings. These buffers have multiple benefits. They limit removal of native vegetation, prohibit planting of invasive species to provide wildlife with a path to move through the landscape, reduce fire risks, and improve habitat quality. For example, the ordinance protects the area within 200 feet of a culvert from development disturbances, since these structures are frequented by wildlife for safe passage under a road.
Map of the Oak View Critical Wildlife Passage Area
Critical Wildlife Passage Areas Overlay Zone
The second ordinance addresses six identified wild passage areas needing special consideration. Three of these critical wildlife passage areas are located within the larger HCWC overlay zone. The CWPA overlay zone is designed to preserve wildlife movement due to any of the following:
- The existence of intact native habitat or other habitat with important beneficial values for wildlife;
- Proximity to water bodies or water courses;
- Proximity to critical roadway crossings;
- Likelihood of encroachment by future development which could easily disturb wildlife movement and plant dispersal;
- Presence of non-urbanized or undeveloped lands within a geographic location that connects core habitats at a regional scale.
Regulations in this overlay zone apply to parcels two acres or greater (mostly all zoning districts) for any new structure or addition to an existing structure or initiation of a new land use that requires a zoning clearance or other permit. This represents a change in the permitting process for landowners who want to build on land parcels that are within this overlay area. Additionally, there are some prohibited actions on lots located this overlay zone, including installation of any new fence post or vertical posts that could trap small birds or other animals unless filled or capped and installation of new wildlife impermeable fencing that forms an enclosed area on a lot that has no lawfully established use or forms an enclosed area around the perimeter of a lot. If not specifically exempted by the ordinance, planting of invasive plants is prohibited, as well.
The regulations applicable to both of these overlay zones apply on a case-by-case basis through a discretionary permit. The regulations are incentive-based, rewarding applicants that approach the County having done their homework and plan to incorporate the regulations. If the proposed development complies with all of the applicable siting criteria and meets the general regulations, only a ministerial Zoning Clearance permit is required. However, if the development does not qualify for a Zoning Clearance, a discretionary permit is required. A Zoning Clearance permit requires supporting environmental impact documentation by qualified professionals, which is more costly for the applicant and will take significantly more time to demonstrate that the development is consistent with the stated development guidelines in the ordinances.
County of Ventura | Resource Management Agency
Considering future planning tools outside of Ventura County
Interestingly, a portion of the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor already exemplifies solutions for wildlife that can emerge from partnerships between public municipalities and private landowners. Using existing tools, such as the zoning code, the City of Irvine and FivePoint Holdings, LLC, came to an agreement when the company proposed a housing development plan on the defunct El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. In 2013, after a lengthy process, a portion of the developer’s plan was zoned as a wildlife corridor in the City of Irvine. FivePoint Holdings, LLC is currently developing and funding the creation of the central reach of the Corridor adjacent to new homes. In the case of wildlife corridors in urban landscapes, a little goes a long way and a thin strip of designated habitat for animal movement can be the ‘penny of prevention’ that prevents future crises in animal populations. In Irvine, the successful partnership between private and public stakeholders is a positive move in the right direction.
Jurisdictions may also have other tools that are used to identify and protect wildlife corridor areas. Among these can be found land trust designations, conservation easements, purchase of development rights, open space designations, and others.
Despite the many methods that exist for incorporating wildlife corridors, planners must continue to use tools in innovative ways to ensure responsible development practices. The Ventura County ordinances seem to be the first of their kind in the state of California and were crafted through a process incorporating the input of landowners, expert researchers, conservation groups, and other stakeholders in an effort to provide for the needs of animal movement as well as accommodate the reasonable needs of landowners to develop their land. It represents a possible model to study for municipalities such as those in Orange County that want to preserve and enhance landscape connectivity in their jurisdiction. As the months and years go by, it remains to be seen how these ordinances impact on-the-ground wildlife movement and development patterns. The hope is that people can learn to better coexist with their wildlife neighbors and put into practice emerging knowledge about how preserving animal movement and wildlife corridors can be a win-win for everyone.
A copy of the Ordinances can be found at:
About the author: Ann Larson worked thirty-three years as a City Planner, 26 of which were in Laguna Beach, where she retired. She loves to hike in the open space areas in and around Laguna.