U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is holding up a permit the Santa Maria Public Airport District needs to develop a commercial park on its property because an agricultural operation apparently destroyed California tiger salamander habitat on airport land.
If the issue isn’t resolved to the federal agency’s satisfaction, it could jeopardize the ability of the airport to obtain such permits for future projects, according to a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Stephen Henry, field office supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ventura office sent a letter dated Aug. 13 to the airport district alleging the destruction of a tiger salamander breeding pond and 110 acres of upland salamander habitat in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.
The letter recommends that airport district representatives meet with the federal agency’s personnel, including law enforcement and legal counsel representatives, to reconcile the destruction before civil or criminal prosecution is undertaken.
Chris Hastert, airport manager, couldn’t provide much information about the alleged violation.
“We just received the letter, and the [Airport District] board hasn’t even had a chance to meet to discuss it yet,” Hastert said Monday, adding that the letter “took us by surprise.”
But he said the allegedly damaged habitat is on airport property and is leased by a farming operation, although he wasn’t sure of the exact location.
“The property is not in the area of the [proposed] commercial center,” Hastert said, referring to the project for which the Fish and Wildlife Service is withholding the permit.
The location also isn’t specified in the letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service; however, it says Hastert told the service the Airport District had approved expanded agricultural operations in the area in summer 2020, and the damage occurred early this year.
The Ventura office did not answer a series of questions about the issue, including whether it is investigating the agricultural operation leasing the land, submitted by email Monday as requested by the Public Affairs Division.
“I'll work with our team to answer your questions as soon as we can," said Ashley McConnell, public affairs supervisor for the Ventura office.
Hastert said the permit is being held up for a project that’s totally separate from the alleged habitat destruction, but both are related to the California tiger salamander.
The Endangered Species Act allows for the loss of protected species, referred to as a “take,” as a result of legal activities through an incidental take permit that usually calls for mitigation of the loss.
According to the letter, the Airport District applied to the Fish and Wildlife Service for an incidental take of tiger salamanders as part of the project to develop a commercial center that Hastert said would be located along the west side of Highway 135 between Union Valley Parkway and Foster Road.
“The [Santa Maria] City Council just approved a zoning change for the property,” Hastert said. “To develop the center, we had to update the zoning map.”
The letter says the breeding pond, identified as SAMA-10, and the surrounding upland salamander habitat were intact when the district submitted its habitat conservation plan with the permit application.
“On May 3, 2021, during our review of the incidental take permit application, the service came across recent aerial imagery that showed that known breeding pond SAMA-10 and the surrounding upland habitat had been destroyed,” the letter says.
The case was subsequently referred to the service’s Office of Law Enforcement for investigation of possible violations of both federal and state laws, and the Ventura office halted processing of the incidental take permit application.
“Please be advised that a violation of the [Endangered Species] Act may negatively impact, or even preclude the service from assessing an application for an incidental take permit; moreover, a conviction for a violation of the act will generally disqualify the airport from receiving or exercising the privileges of an incidental take permit … into the future,” the letter says.
It concludes by saying the Airport District could avoid facing legal action if it proposes to resolve the matter “through actions that would benefit and conserve” the California tiger salamander.