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Extended Statement on JTGAR's Position on the Joshua Tree Threatened Species Petition

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

As previously stated, Joshua Tree Gateway Association of REALTORS opposes the petition to list the Joshua Tree as an endangered species under CESA for reasons of policy and legal precedent. The blast-radius type of effect that such sweeping regulations aimed at preventing invasive large-scale projects has on smaller, residential properties within communities and by proxy, homeowners rights, their property taxes and long-term affordability of a community as a whole is what is of primary concern. It is not because we do not think the tree deserves protection, but rather that the current proposal for doing so is imprecise, has numerous potential detrimental effects on the surrounding communities, and could set a lax legal precedent for future petitioners.

The spirit of the petition itself targets large swaths of desert land containing thousands or even tens of thousands of Joshua Trees that could be in danger of being razed for things like solar or wind farms.  Certainly, JTGAR would oppose such projects that affect the desert around us as we have multiple times in the past, our work fighting against Project Greenpath and more recently the Cadiz Water Project speaks to this.  Sweeping policy such as the listing of a species as threatened under CESA affects all iterations of a species without categorization or more precise context, and asks them to be treated the same regardless of whether the petition was concerned with a homeowner getting a permit to transplant a Joshua Tree so they might build in their back yard, or a builder getting a permit to transplant a few trees to build a home on a vacant lot. Under the current regulations for threatened species, if the Joshua tree is listed, activities that may remove any amount of Joshua trees will require a CEQA compliance document, thereby requiring the property owner to employ biologists and specialists to prepare these environmental documents. This requirement would apply to any construction, or even specific yard work, that would not normally require a permit, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of development. Complicating matters further is the need for mitigation, which may include financial contributions to various conservation funds or the mandated purchase of undisturbed land that is restricted from development in perpetuity. Once the environmental review is complete, property owners will be required to obtain an incidental-take permit, again subjecting the project to additional state scrutiny and costs. These environmental studies that are required by the Fish and Wildlife Commission to allow even the transplantation of protected species take on average 12-18 months to complete, with collective costs amounting in excess of $50,000. These estimates are based on requirements for these mandatory studies and permitting processes prior to building and have been reported to us by our local, state and federal agencies, as well as developers and builders. For more information on those estimates, please contact San Bernardino County.

The effect this kind of regulation has on residential property prices is well-documented as a textbook example of scarcity of supply, and such is responsible for much of the housing shortages in our state.  When builders will not or cannot viably develop, the price of existing housing steadily increases, which in turn pushes market median prices up, which then directly affects the amount of property tax homeowners are assessed.  These are domino effects that eventually can price out residents from their own homes, that raise the price of existing housing to increasingly unaffordable levels, and that discourage any kind of development within the protected area as an unintended consequence of protections without nuance.  Property owners in our area are already subject to large water treatment project assessments appended to their property taxes as well as numerous school bonds and rate hikes for nearly all services, already driving the price of home ownership up far higher in recent years.  If property value assessments are affected over time by increasing man made scarcity, longtime homeowners on fixed incomes and low income households may be priced out of their own properties.

Also, this petition sets legal precedent.  With climate change a looming issue that will not be going away any time soon, more and more species of both plants and animals will come up for protection studies in the coming years. Because the current petition provides no information at all with regard to species "abundance" and "population trend", this could provide justification and set precedence for future petitioners to dispense with any pretense of addressing the abundance and population trend of a species or any other statutorily required factor impacting species survival. The petition itself recognizes that the current population is not in decline, but rather proposes the protection based on a predicted future decline. The way these studies are conducted impact the residents of the surrounding community, and have lasting and far-reaching effects. Therefore, when we say we oppose the petition, it is because it lacks nuance and needs detailed policy to be enacted to mitigate the possibly unintended results that large scale regulations have within communities, especially small, rural communities such as ours.  This issue sets the stage for future discussions on threatened species, how to create meaningful policy that creates or upholds protection mechanisms for vulnerable species while not sacrificing the well-being and longevity of the communities with which they share space.

While our opposition to the petition has had us characterized by local environmental groups as not wishing to protect Joshua Tree at all, or even that we wish to see the trees killed and habitat destroyed, this is certainly not the case and has never been our position. We are hoping to see the Joshua Trees protected with rules added into the study process about how the species is to be treated in small-scale development and within community boundaries.  The current permitting system that exists should be utilized with far more oversight, accountability and documentation, and we hope to see this as a result of the discussion around this issue. We are not advocating for invasive development; we are advocating for homeowners, responsible building and hoping to help influence regulations and policy that protect the longevity and viability of our community.

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