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July 11, 2012

Jul 11 2012

A Briefing: Significant Ecological Areas (SEAs)

Los Angeles County first began to inventory biotic resources and identify important areas of biological diversity in the 1970s.  Today, the primary mechanism used by the County to conserve biological diversity is a planning overlay called Significant Ecological Areas (SEAs) designated in the County’s General Plan. Together the General Plan overlay, and the SEA conditional use permit process, are referred to as the SEA Program.

The Aera “Puente Hills” lands contain a SEA overlay.

The SEA provides special review and approval considerations for any development activities within lands containing this zone augment.  The County’s current SEAs are regulated by a conditional use permit for SEAs and subject to SEATAC (Technical Advisory Committee) review.

The intent of the proposed SEA regulations is not to preclude development, but to allow controlled development without jeopardizing the biotic diversity of Los Angeles County.

The SEATAC is an advisory committee to the Regional Planning Commission that specializes in various areas of biology in Los Angeles County. Prior to project design, SEATAC will review the conceptual project and carefully evaluate the biologic resources within the project site, taking into account the surrounding area (e.g., linear features such as streams).

The County is currently embarked on an effort to revise its SEA standards and guidelines, as well as its process.  The idea that revisions should be pursued is not a new one and stems from the County’s update of its General Plan which has been ongoing over a period of many years.

Our discussion with County staff provided some history on the evolution of SEAs.  Back in the 1970s LA County was undergoing amendments to its General Plan which resulted in legal challenges.  Those legal challenges then led to the establishment of the SEA Program in the 1980s.  The initial standards and guidelines were well intended, but somewhat a “scattershot” approach and have faced the need to evolve.

Additionally, SEA related science has advanced in the past several decades.  LA County staff report the need to move away from the SEA’s initial “island” approach of protections and recognize and incorporate the realities of how ecologic and biologic relationships work—a more interrelated and comprehensive and connective approach to SEAs.  A key component of the initiated reforms involves connecting SEAs to each other wherever possible to address issues including wildlife corridors and migration considerations.  To that end, the SEA update proposes to increase the area of SEA’s by 2.6 times what exists today.

The SEA update has not been without its controversy and the County received varying and disparate comments related to the release of its first draft of the revisions in early 2012.  Commenting stakeholders cover a wide range of interests from the Building Industry Association to Biologist’s at the State Department of Fish and Game.

Other commenter’s included WCCA, the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, State Fish and Game, the Antelope Valley Blue Ribbon Committee and the Building Industry Association.

Comments received on the first draft materials could generally be described as falling into one of two categories-highly detailed and critical of technical specifics proposed by the draft or critical of the first draft and perceived impediments to development it creates.

The County staff is attempting to mediate a middle ground between extreme ends of the ideological spectrum.

That effort includes newly proposed process thresholds or “tiers” of review, recognizing that certain levels of development projects may not require the scrutiny of higher or larger proposals.

The program updates also propose a new composition for the SEATAC, with additional science disciplines represented.  The committee composition is an on-going question and has not been finalized.

The County staff released a revised set of SEA standards and guidelines for comment in June 2012, the comment period concluded August 1, 2012.  The staff indicates the draft is a “work in progress” and still contains blank areas which will come complete within subsequent drafts which will also be released for review.

LA County staff has noted the update process and draft approach is detailed, and they have generously offered to meet with HOSEC to provide an overview and discussion of the SEA and update process and considerations.

To date, HOSEC and its member Cities have not commented upon the proposed revisions to SEA process and area designations.

A variety of technical resource agencies have commented toward more technical, science based, issues and those appear well documented for the record.  LA County staff indicates it would welcome comments of particularly groups representing multiple local jurisdiction agencies such as HOSEC.