Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Yolo County] Grand Jury exonerates Yolo Conservancy

Yolo County’s Grand Jury has exonerated the Yolo Habitat Conservancy for any misuse of funds or other “illegal activities,” charges which had been brought forward by anonymous individual, who may have had personal reasons for making the claims.
According to the Grand Jury’s recently released final report, and coming after a review of three years of budgets from the Conservancy that covered 2014-2017, the jury found it used “acceptable accounting practices.”
The Conservancy was criticized earlier in a June 2016 grand jury report titled “Yolo Habitat conservancy: A Never Ending Story” for the amount of time and money it has taken in creating an conservancy plan and other issues.
The Grand Jury argued at the time the agency’s performance did not justify the time and money spent as a final conservation plan has not been approved despite county efforts that could be traced back to the 1990s.
In the Conservancy’s response — which was also supported by Yolo County supervisors and the Woodland City Council — it was noted the Conservancy had only been in charge of the plan’s formation since 2002.
It also argued that similar plans in other counties had also taken more than a decade to complete. Conservancy staff also noted the plan is estimated to cost $10.3 million, which is similar to the cost of plans in other counties such as Placer, which has cost $10.5 million over 15 years.
As a result of the jury’s yearlong investigation, the Conservancy will adopt a performance measurement matrix to help track the organization’s goals, outcomes and pending actions, the report stated.
The Yolo Plan is a countywide conservation plan to provide Endangered Species Act permits and associated mitigation for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and levees and development activities like agricultural facilities, housing, and commercial buildings identified for construction over the next 50 years.
When completed, the plan will cover 12 endangered and threatened species and 15 natural communities. It will provide for the conservation of these species in the county, as well as 50-year permits for development activities.
In its June 2016 criticism the grand jury alleged it had been “an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money and an example of Yolo County government functioning at a shameful level of incompetency.” The author declined to release his name publicly, although members of the Grand Jury knew the author.
However, the grand jury found many of the complaints weren’t supported.
The criticism’s were also rejected by the Woodland City Council and Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
To get the Conservancy back on track, the Grand Jury recommended that the agency submit a final plan by April 30, 2017 and receive annual performance audits to measure progress toward this goal. Supervisors agreed with the recommended deadline, as the Conservancy had already adopted a similar time frame among other policies to provide better accountability.
In June of this year, Woodland’s City Council got its first official look at a countywide Habitat Conservation Plan, which is now undergoing a public comment period for development of an environmental report. Public comments will be accepted on the report until Aug. 31 and written letters must be received by Aug. 30 for consideration.
When completed, it’s hoped the plan will be a model for other communities throughout state in its protection of both habitat and agriculture, according to Petrea Marchand, executive director of the Conservancy.
Marchand took over direction in 2012 of the joint powers agreement between the county and its four incorporated cities and if all goes well she anticipates formal adoption by fall 2018.
According to Marchand, implementation of the plan will cost $371.4 million over the next 50 years of which an estimated 64 percent will be paid by project fees, another 12 percent by state and federal grants and 3 percent from investment interests. That may sound like a lot, but initial estimates put the plan’s cost at around $500 million.
The plan area encompasses 653,549 acres in Yolo County and includes conservation activities outside the county within an additional 1,174 acres along Putah Creek in Solano County and is designed to streamline and coordinate the process for approving and resolving problems with endangered or threatened species and their habitats without having to go to other state or federal agencies.
In all, around 33,000 acres would fall under the plan’s coverage area.
Yolo County and its cities have already conserved 90,967 acres countywide, of which 34,282 acres are in permanent conservation easements.
Those areas covered under the plan include land uses contemplated in local general plans such as Woodland’s recently adopted 2035 General Plan. The covered activities have been organized into five broad categories: urban projects and activities, rural projects and activities, operations and maintenance, conservation strategy implementation, and neighboring landowner protection program.
August 1, 2017
Daily Democrat
By Jenice Tupolo

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