Most plan implementers would focus on the balance that HCPs bring between the preservation of habitat and certainty in development.  But there is a legitimate question, do they provide enough payback for the county, industry or other sponsor to invest the time, effort and money?  From the point of view of one of the largest plans in the United States, the answer is a definitive yes!  The Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habit Conservation Plan (MSHCP) was adopted in 2004, more than 13 years ago.   The MSHCP is huge in terms of size of Plan Area, acres to be preserved, and the number of covered species.  The Western Riverside County MSHCP encompasses an area of 1.26 million acres, preserves 500,000 acres in perpetuity, and covers 146 species, of which 33 are listed under state and federal law.

First, what do MSHCPs, and their equivalent state plans provide?  They expedite ESA compliance at the federal and state levels by providing local control of the permits, and a pre-approved process and reserve configuration for habitat protection which expedites permitting.

The success of the Western Riverside MSHCP can be measured in its value to transportation infrastructure, certainty in development, and preservation of habitat and open space.  The impetus for the development of the Riverside plan was driven in large part by a need for expedited approval of transportation projects, which had been delayed by the time-consuming challenge of working through the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  With 33 listed species, there were few areas within western Riverside County that were not impacted by the act.  The MSHCP directly addresses these ESA issues by providing advance mitigation for transportation infrastructure.

Interstate 15 State Route 91 Interchange, Corona California

Prior to the MSHCP, bringing a transportation project forward meant a long planning cycle with the critical path defined by ESA compliance.  What has changed?  In those 13 years since approval of the plan, two new freeways, eight major freeway interchange projects, and dozens of major highways and arterials have been approved through the MSHCP process without resort to costly, time-consuming litigation.  A majority of these projects have already been built or are under construction.  Many of these projects may have never been built without the plan.  These transportation successes are significant and the impact of the plan is measurable. Total transportation investment to date has been over $4 billion.

Amazingly, every regional arterial and highway project in development has been able to move quickly through the MSHCP process.  This includes all of the projects of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, the County of Riverside and all 18 incorporated Cities, as all were identified and are permitted under the plan.  The ESA is no longer the critical path for projects within the Plan Area.  Most of these regional projects have some federal nexus, thus requiring an expedited Biological Opinion (BO) under the MSHCP.  Prior to the plan, this meant a process requiring about a two year average.  With the plan, this is an average of two, but no more than three months.

As an example, we can drill down to individual projects.  Prior to the plan, the River Road Bridge at the Santa Ana River required four consultations for three species over six years for sediment and debris removal.  After the plan was implemented, the consultation for the bridge replacement was three months for the three species.

Three different studies have shown that completion of transportation projects has been accelerated by one to five years due to the MSHCP.  These time savings can be translated to actual cost savings by looking at benefits of early delivery. Taking a two-year average acceleration of projects, along with Western Riverside’s $4 Billion Road Program and the National Highway Construction Cost Index Average for the past eight years of 3.9% per year, we can calculate a savings of $312 million.  These savings almost pay for costs of habitat acquisition and management of acquired lands to date.

What is the plan doing for development?  Approximately 300,000 acres are in the Criteria Area for covered species, of which approximately 50% must be preserved.  These 300,000 acres are a little less than half of the remaining developable land in western Riverside County.  The plan is not hard line, but rather requires acquisition of 160-acre criteria cells which meet specific conservation criteria for the plan.   So how do we know that the plan is providing certainty for the development community?  We can calculate that from the permits approved.  85% of projects are occurring outside the 300,000 acres covered by the Criteria Area.  Without the plan, we would expect this percentage outside of the criteria area to be significantly lower, with more development occurring in the Criteria Area and less conservation achieved.  The advantage for developers is that outside of the Criteria Area, there are few MSHCP requirements.  In some areas there are no MHSCP requirements.  This provides certainty for development while assuring that plan objectives are met.

So far, over 58,000 additional acres have been acquired, at a cost of nearly $500 million, to bring the plan total to more than 405,000 acres of the 500,000 acres required.  The habitat for 146 species is being managed in accordance with the plan, and the status these species is being actively monitored.

Anheuser Busch – Phase 4 Acquisition, Murrieta California

The plan has been incredibly successful for Western Riverside County and continues to enjoy widespread support within the community.  Transportation projects are being expedited.  Other infrastructure projects are also being expedited, including major power, water and flood control projects.  Habitat for species is being preserved and managed successfully.  In the end transportation, infrastructure, development and habitat conservation are all winners.

Charlie Landry
Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority.
Western Riverside County HCPO web site: