County Supes Scrap Mitigation and Rule in Favor of Steelheads
by Ethan Stewart
Despite being yanked from last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting agenda amidst a flurry of emails from the involved parties, an appeal by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara was unanimously approved by county supervisors this week. The approval clears the way for long-percolating restoration plans for Arroyo Hondo Creek to move forward, free of the burden of the labor- and cost-intensive mitigations the Board initially required. In August, the Board approved the Land Trust-led Arroyo Hondo Steelhead Passage project, essentially giving the go-ahead for the removal of a large concrete culvert near the base of the train trestle where the creek meets the ocean, the addition of grouted rock, and the resulting creation of a new lagoon area. Much to the dismay of the Land Trust, the Board had also added the stipulation that the construction be mitigated by a 3-to-1 ratio of assorted native plants upstream from the restoration area. After this week’s vote, the Land Trust needs only to replant vegetation and habitat at a 1-to-1 ratio in the immediate restoration area.
The Arroyo Hondo Ranch was acquired as a preserve in 2001 by the Land Trust, and its 782 acres make up more than a quarter of the Arroyo Hondo Creek watershed area, with the remainder falling under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. According to Land Trust director Michael Feeney, the reconstruction of the lower 550 feet of the creek would result in the opening up of approximately six miles of vital steelhead breeding habitat. And while associated agencies like NOAA, California Fish and Game, and CalTrans all felt the proposed restoration and its 1-to-1 mitigation was more than reasonable, county staff countered that all projects — whether they be environmentally motivated or development-based — should be forced to comply with a 3-to-1 mitigation ratio. The nonprofit, volunteer-based Land Trust feared the 3-to-1 ratio would not only be overkill but could also possibly slow the project’s completion, if not derail it. “All the plants we are taking out, all the areas we are restoring, we are going to restore to a much better condition than they are today,” explained Feeney to the supes this week. He went on to point out that the 3-to-1 ratio didn’t exist anywhere in county code.
Adding further complexity to the Arroyo Hondo Creek issue — and no doubt fueling the widespread email speculation that the plan could forever remain saddled with the 3-to-1 ratio — were the ill feelings currently hanging over the board. Supervisor Brooks Firestone in particular was peeved after an enviro-led appeal essentially killed a Gaviota Bridge project despite the fact that the county had sunk $900,000 into its planning and had secured approximately $6 million in federal funds. Observers thought Firestone’s frustration over the outcome of the bridge project would influence his vote on Arroyo Hondo. However, in the end, Supervisor Firestone surprised everyone by making the motion to approve the appeal — though not before lamenting the Gaviota Bridge meltdown — and even took things one step further by asking staff to come back to the board at a later date with a plan for dealing with future mitigation ratio debates.