Skip to comments.Endangered flowers trigger fight over California housing project (another plant of a "plant"?)
Posted on 07/08/2006 1:02:12 PM PDT by NormsRevenge
Did residents of this idyllic wine country town illegally plant an endangered flower to sabotage a proposed housing development?
That's the question at the heart of a quarrel folks here have dubbed "Foamgate."
Bob Evans, a 72-year-old retired elementary school principal, says he was walking with his dog last year when he came upon the tiny white flowers of Sebastopol meadowfoam poking from shallow pools of water in a grassy field.
The former bean farm happens to be the chosen site of the 20-acre Laguna Vista housing development. Evans and other opponents seized on the discovery of the federally protected species in hopes it would force the developer to scale back plans calling for 145 houses and apartments.
"It was the bad luck of the developer that it popped up," Evans said.
But when state wildlife officials investigated, they determined the meadowfoam had been planted there and ordered it dug up.
This year, the flowers returned, and with them the controversy.
Sebastopol, an upscale community of about 8,000 people 50 miles north of San Francisco, is known for its environmentally conscious residents and restrictive growth policies.
"Our community takes a very hard, careful look at development," said Kenyon Webster, the town's planning director. "That small-town character is the reason a lot of people want to live here."
When the meadowfoam appeared in April 2005, and the Department of Fish and Game determined it had been transplanted, it appeared to be a case of overzealous conservationists.
"The people who planted it mistakenly believed that it would be the silver bullet that killed the project," said Scott Schellinger of Schellinger Brothers, the Santa Rosa developer behind Laguna Vista.
Known as Limnanthes vinculans, the multistemmed herbs grow up to a foot tall and have small bowl-shaped white flowers. They are only found in seasonal wetlands and vernal pools created by spring rains in this part of Sonoma County.
Threatened by agriculture and urban development, the meadowfoam was listed as an endangered species by the state and federal governments, making it illegal to harm or remove them without permission. Wetland and vernal pool habitat has been set aside to protect them.
Evans and other members of the Laguna Preservation Council say the proposed $70 million development could damage the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, a 240-square-mile basin of wetlands that runs through Sebastopol.
"When you minimize wetlands, then you decrease of diversity of species everywhere," Evans said.
Evans called Sonoma State University biology professor Phil Northen as well as the head of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. They visited the site and agreed the plants were native.
Northen, who doesn't live in Sebastopol and had never met Evans before, said the field was "perfect habitat" for meadowfoam, and that there was no evidence the flowers had been planted.
But when the Fish and Game team visited the site at Schellinger's invitation a few weeks later, it reached the opposite conclusion.
Eric Larsen, the department's deputy regional manager, said the flowers had never before been seen at the Laguna Vista site, which is at a higher elevation than the typical meadowfoam habitat. Team members also noticed plants beneath the meadowfoam, leading them to believe it had been relocated.
"They didn't belong there," Larsen said. "It was appropriate to remove them from the site."
Fish and Game launched an investigation into who planted the flowers, but they never identified any suspects. Their refusal to offer evidence for their conclusion has prompted Laguna Vista opponents to cry foul.
"The Department of Fish and Game refuses to show the data that supports this alleged act of eco-terrorism," Evans said. "I didn't plant it. No one planted it. It's clearly a natural plant that grew there because that's where it belongs."
Fish and Game interviewed Evans and Northen, but Larsen said the case went cold. Releasing evidence from the investigation could encourage others to try the same stunt, he said.
If the plants were found to be indigenous, it could have triggered another round of environmental studies and forced the developer to reconfigure the project, said planning director Webster.
Foamgate might have ended there, had the flowers not sprouted again in recent months in the same area.
Schellinger said the new plants grew from seeds scattered during the "original criminal act." Fish and Game agreed and wasn't inclined to reopen the investigation.
Still, following a series of public hearings, the Sebastopol City Council tabled final approval of Laguna Vista. A mediator is now overseeing negotiations between Schellinger Brothers and residents in hopes of reaching a compromise that could include a scaled-down version of the project.
Evans and his allies believe the reappearance of the meadowfoam proves that the land targeted for development is home to an endangered species.
"They're just simple little white plants," Evans said. "What makes them special is that they have overcome great difficulty and survive in a place where it's very difficult to survive."
On the one hand, I favor property rights. On the other, I'm sick of watching more open space in California and elsewhere plowed under for yet more housing and mall development. We need rational land use planning and in its absence we get ridiculous exploitation of technicalities like this.
I am sure Mr. Evans is the prime suspect. That anyone would do this causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential damages to the developer is maddening.
This is ridiculous! Plants and animals face extinction all the time. If their populations are reduced to tiny amounts, living in a tiny area, they are probably about due for extinction.
The problem is primarily with elected officials. Most counties and municipalities have general plans that look good on paper, balancing the interests of residential developers, industry, agriculture, and open space advocates. Officials then issue special use permits or other exceptions which defeat the intent of the general plan. There is a reason developers make donations to the campaigns of elected office holders.
I totally agree. We are in the same situation in Washington- watching beautiful areas getting plowed under to build a bunch of generic McMansions with no yards or trees left over.
If it grows this easily, maybe it doesn't belong on an endangered list.
A Sebastapol meadowfoam bought at the local nursery; $14.95
What I'm going to sell my house for in California: half a million to three quarters of a million dollars.
My laughing all the way to the bank when I leave this state: priceless
Understand this concept?
Same for the Walgreens....
Notice how many more are within a mile. Yet, I while have to endure more clear-cutting near my property, increased heat because asphalt reflects heat where trees don't just so Walgreen's can have a store in an already saturated market.
What we really need is for tyrannical busybodies, who want to impose their aesthetic sensibilities on the community at someone else's expense, to open their own G** D*** wallets and buy the land they want to see preserved. Failing that, they should press for the government to purchase such property at fair market value.
"Rational land use planning" that places the burden of preservation on the backs of individual property owners should be resisted with armed violence.
The hell they do. It's their property and they should do as they see fit with it.
Limiting development to protect beautiful wild areas is a good thing. But what is the special value of a meadowfoam plant? Can we get oil or beer out of it?
That was a good post!
You just wait. Mt. Ranier is going to go off some day and the resulting landslides are going to cover up most of Seattle's more distant suburbs.
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