Council hears presentation on Habitat Conservation Plan renewal

Hurricane City Council, Hurricane, Utah, Jan. 7, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

HURRICANE — An informative presentation on the renewal of Washington County’s Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, was at the forefront of business at the Hurricane City Council meeting Thursday night; the first for new council members Cheryl Reeve and Kevin Thomas.

Desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News
Desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

Jodi Borgeson from the Washington County Attorney’s office, representing the County Commission, provided the council with an overview of the HCP, which was established 20 years ago to preserve 62,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat within Washington County. 

The HCP has facilitated development on land designated as critical habitat, allowing for a blanket “take permit” to remove affected tortoises for landowners wishing to develop land in the sensitive areas, Borgeson said. This prevents each separate landowner from having to go through the costly and time-consuming permit process themselves.

Throughout the life of the HCP, boundary adjustments have been made to allow for development as well, Borgeson said. If tortoise are taken without a permit when land is being developed, there are hefty fines involved, she said.

The HCP is set to expire this year and Washington County is working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to renew the HCP.

Since the HCP was established, the county has worked to acquire all of the private inholdings through land exchanges and by purchasing property with Land and Water Conservation Fund monies. There were 7,671 private acres in the HCP at first and 5,219 of those acres have been acquired, Borgeson said.

Today, only 1,288 acres within the HCP are still in private hands. One of the major benefits of the HCP is taxpayers do not have to shoulder the responsibility for acquiring the private land within it, Borgeson said.

After Borgeson’s presentation, County Commissioner Alan Gardner spoke to the council. Land exchanges have been the primary method for acquiring land within the HCP, Gardner said, citing land east of Sand Hollow Resort and north of Toquerville as examples.

An exchange deal in Long Valley will close in the Spring, Gardner said. He said land exchanges were more successful early on because the Washington County HCP was one of the first HCPs in the nation, which made it easier to get funding. But, as more HCPs popped up, especially in areas with lower land values, securing that funding became more difficult.

The council asked if there is a point to which the tortoise population could reach that would make it not considered endangered anymore. To this, Gardner said severe drought and recent fires have hurt the tortoise population, but as far as he knows, there is no number set the population could reach to not be considered endangered.

A stake marks the border of land slated to be part of the proposed Sand Hollow land exchange, July 11, 2014 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News
A stake marks the border of land slated to be part of the proposed Sand Hollow land exchange, July 11, 2014 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The HCP has received perfect scores on its review except for land acquisition, the commissioners noted, and acquiring land within the HCP is the BLM’s responsibility. The county does its best to try to facilitate the acquisitions.

One exchange that is still outstanding is private land near the Green Springs area of Washington City that developer Bob Brennan would like to exchange for acreage near Sand Mountain, an exchange the city has tried to stop, Bramall said. Bramall asked if Washington County land could be exchanged with land in other counties, such as Kane County, explaining that Brennan has looked all over the state for land to exchange for his Green Springs property. Gardner said exchanges across counties could be a consideration but would be a difficult process.

The USFWS has acknowledged the HCP renewal and that progress is being made, Gardner said.

In the end, Gardner reiterated that the county is doing its part to renew the HCP and facilitate land acquisition so taxpayers would not have to foot the bill to pay for the private inholdings within the HCP, which in one scenario brought up during the meeting, could significantly raise property taxes.

Other business

Devin Reusch, chair of the city’s Tree Board, spoke during the public forum to encourage the council to plant more of what he called “edible shade trees,” including fruit and nut trees, in its parks and public spaces. Such trees, he said, would be a “valuable treasure” and add to the city’s beauty with their blossoms in the spring and colored foliage in the fall and would provide food for the city’s needy.

The City Council approved the appointment of Councilwoman Pam Humphries to serve on the Administrative Control Board of the Washington County Solid Waste Special Service District.

The City Council approved a General Plan map amendment to change some zoning from multi-residential to single-family residential in the Mesa View and Sage Point subdivisions as well as some other developable residential lots nearby. The aim is to make the area less dense, Bramall said. Some are zoned for mobile homes but will now be developed as single family lots, Planning Director Toni Foran said

The City recognized Greg Lawton for 41 years of service with the city’s Emergency Medical Services department and Bryan Jacobson for 17 years of service. Mayor Bramall became emotional as he thanked the two men, saying people in town still have wives, husbands, children, and grandparents because of men like Lawton and Jacobson.

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