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Mitigation Bankers’ See Profit in Converting Developed Land Back Into Natural Habitat

Video by Katie Schoolov

Land in San Diego is becoming so valuable - and natural habitat so scarce - that it’s now profitable to recreate natural habit and sell it. Private companies called “Mitigation Bankers” find it can pay to turn developed land back into wetlands, and sell it to developers as mitigation for projects elsewhere. But KPBS north county editor Alison St John says not everyone buys into that idea.

On a recent morning, people from half a dozen public and private agencies met in a tomato field in Oceanside to break ground on a unique project.

Photo credit: Alison St. John

Therese Bradford of the Army Corps of Engineers stands next to a map of the land to be reclaimed as wetland habitat (in green) with a conservation easement granted by the Singh family, Feb. 6, 2015.

On a recent morning, people from half a dozen public and private agencies met in a tomato field in north San Diego County to break ground on a unique project.

Therese Bradford of the Army Corps of Engineers was one of six people to grab a shovel and turn over the first symbolic clod of dirt.

“This is a very exciting project,” Bradford said. “We’ve been working on turning this area from tomato farms to conservation. We’ve been wanting to do that for 15 to 20 years. This is one of the most important parts of the San Luis Rey River for restoration.”

Lots of wildlife depends on the San Luis Rey River, which runs from the mountains in the east, through Bonsall, Vista and Oceanside to the ocean. But for decades the Singh family has planted vine-ripe tomatoes in these fields, and a section of the river has been channeled into a straight canal, very different from the wooded habitat on either side of the property.

Land in San Diego is becoming so valuable — and natural habitat so scarce — that it’s now profitable to recreate natural habit and sell it. Private companies called “Mitigation Bankers” find it can pay to turn developed land back into wetlands, and sell it to developers to mitigate for projects elsewhere.

Jeff Novak is with Wildlands, the Sacramento-based mitigation banking company that plans to move tons of dirt to recreate 56 acres of this winding riverbed.

“Currently the San Luis Rey River is constrained to this narrow, arundo-lined canal that’s armored with giant rip rap stones on the bank,” Novak said, pointing to the reedy canal behind him. “So, essentially we’re going to be setting the river free, and allowing dense riparian vegetation, including willows and cotton woods and mulefat to colonize the river, shade the river. The river will be able to meander and spread out into the flat agricultural lands out behind us there.”

The Singh family was reluctant to let go of even this small part of the land it has farmed for so long. But Brian Monaghan, vice president with Wildlands, said the company was able to offer a strong incentive, because restoring wetlands generates millions of dollars in mitigation credits.

“My guess is that they’ll probably be about half a million dollars per acre, so not cheap,” he said. “So we would sell these wetlands to third parties that have permits from either the Army Corps or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. That could be your local highway department, it could be the City of Oceanside, it could be a developer who’s developing somewhere here in the region.“

Monaghan would not reveal how much Wildlands, a private, for-profit company, offered the Singh family for the land. Krishna Singh, the owner’s son, said it was a difficult decision for the family, but they support the goals of the mitigation bank, and agreed to grant the company an easement for the project. The farm will continue to grow vine-ripe tomatoes in the fields around the recreated riverbed.

Monaghan said this is the first time Wildlands found that recreating habitat - rather than preserving habitat - pencils out for mitigation credits. He is confident the sale of the mitigation credits to developers will cover the cost of obtaining the easement, getting all the permits and then recreating the habitat, which involves moving tons of dirt and planting native shrubs.

There is also a fund that is set up to manage the land in perpetuity. This makes it a desirable option for developers who may not want to do this work themselves, Monaghan said.

“As land gets more and more scarce I can see where we’re actually ripping concrete out at some point in order to do restoration,” Monaghan said.

But not everyone buys this idea.

Moosa Creek Project

This is not the only site where a mitigation banking company is interested in returning the land to its original state. A few miles to the east lays the shuttered San Luis Rey Downs golf course in Bonsall, where the owners want to turn the fairways back into riparian habitat to be sold as mitigation credits. It's known as the Moosa Creek project, and it's not the first golf course that has attracted the attention of mitigaion bankers.

But a local group called “Save the Downs” has sprung up and Jon Frandell is leading the charge against what he sees as an attack.

“This is the very first time that any large scale developed property has been attacked by a mitigation bank to be destroyed, 350 thousand cubic feet of dirt to be moved out and then fenced in the middle of the community," Frandell said. “This hasn’t been done before.“

Frandell said “Save the Downs” is considering an initiative to block the mitigation bank.

”It’s the transfer of the wealth,” he said. “All these homeowners have lost 25 to 30 percent of their property values now, today, because of the abandonment of the golf course and the threat of a mitigation bank.”

To Frandell and his neighbors, riparian habitat is death to real estate values. He points to the towering reeds and shrubs growing in the creek beside the golf course, very different from the gentle rolling fairways.

The community would like to find a way to return at least part of the course to golf, but he acknowledged none of the open space options could match the profits to be made from selling the land as mitigation credits.

Bradford said mitigation banks are not necessarily fenced off from public use, except if the land is private.

“The proposed Moosa Creek bank may have some public access, depending on the design of the bank, input by the community, etc.," she wrote in an email.

Bradford said she is urging the mitigation banking company, Conservation Land Group, to work with the community, because addressing community concerns is part of the process of obtaining a permit. This, she said, is a learning process for all involved.

“I guess it depends on your definition of open space," she said. “Some people think of that as open water in a lagoon, other people might appreciate riparian, other people might think of a ball park.”

Returning land within urbanized areas back to its natural state, and selling it as mitigation for development elsewhere is a new concept, Bradford said.

But it could become more common. So much wetland has been destroyed in Southern California that preserving what is left is not enough, so finding ways to recreate it is a priority, Bradford said.

She sees the project at Singh farms as setting a good precedent.

“I think this is a great example of a public private partnership that really works for the land owner, Singh farms, and Wildlands, the banker, and I know that people are really knocking on the door,” she said. “There’s a huge need for it.”

However, even the project at Singh farms took well over a decade to get to the point where all parties involved were ready to break ground. That explains why people from different agencies met in an empty field to cheer, as they celebrated the ground breaking.

Freelancer Beverley Woodworth was the videographer for this story. woodworthbeverley@gmail.com

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