Benton County is going back to the drawing board on its efforts to implement a habitat conservation plan for the Fender’s blue butterfly, an endangered insect found only in the Willamette Valley and once believed extinct.
The Benton County Prairie Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which aims to protect the butterfly while streamlining the permitting process for certain construction activities in areas of sensitive habitat, already was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
On Tuesday, however, Community Development Director Greg Verret told the Board of Commissioners that county staff had erred in proposing development code amendments to enact the plan’s provisions.
“The amendments would enable Benton County to offer mitigation to property owners for development activities that otherwise would have to go through a more arduous process with the federal government,” Verret testified at the board’s noon meeting. “We embarked on this process believing it was a legitimate path to get these amendments adopted. But it has become clear through conversations with various parties that it is perhaps not the most legally correct process.”
Acting on Verret’s recommendation, the commissioners voted unanimously to abandon the effort to enact the habitat conservation plan by amending the development code.
Instead, the county will begin working to incorporate the habitat conservation plan into the county’s comprehensive plan, a lengthy process that will require a public hearing before the Benton County Planning Commission.
Because the conservation plan would cover areas of butterfly habitat within the urban growth boundaries of Corvallis and Philomath, the comp plan amendments will also require joint hearings with those cities’ planning commissions, Verret said last week.
The legislative change of plan was prompted by the objections of Allen Lahey, who wants to develop property in the Philomath urban growth boundary and retained a lawyer to fight the code amendments.
Michael Farthing, Lahey’s attorney, said after the hearing that he would push the Benton County Planning Commission to exempt land in the urban fringe from the habitat conservation plan.
“Our big issue is not having the plan apply within the urban growth boundaries,” he said.
“I think the county could avoid a lot of expense and time and bureaucracy by saying, ‘We’re going to apply the HCP outside of city limits and UGBs.’”
County officials argue that the plan actually makes development easier for rural property owners by allowing them to mitigate for any harm to the threatened butterfly under the county’s federal incidental take permit.
In fact, Lahey’s initial complaint about the HCP was that his property was excluded from that coverage because of its high-density urban zoning.
But Farthing said his client most likely would be better off not having to worry at all about the habitat plan, which he said adds an additional layer of bureaucracy and uncertainty to the development process.
“I say this on an almost daily basis: The devil is in the details.”