Ruling on Songbird Will Permit Trade-Offs : Environment: The tiny gnatcatcher is now a threatened species, but local officials could allow development in its nesting grounds under an experimental state plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the addition of the California gnatcatcher to the federal threatened species list last week, developers on the Palos Verdes Peninsula--where roughly 30 pairs of the tiny birds live--now must wait to find out how the decision will affect their building plans.

Planners and developers alike said they are pleased that the Clinton Administration wants to make the songbird a test case for an experimental program created by Gov. Pete Wilson. Under the plan, local officials could allow some development inside areas where the bird is nesting as long as provisions are made for permanent preservation of the animal's native habitat at other locations nearby.

"It basically allows developers to make a trade-off," explained Rancho Palos Verdes planning administrator Carolynn Petru. "If they take habitat that is on their own property, they can buy rights to other coastal sage scrub property that will be preserved forever."

Just such a trade-off protection plan already is in the works for an 18-hole golf course and 83-house project in the city's southeast corner.

Developer Hon-Zuckerman has tried to draw up plans for the 268-acre site as if the four pairs of gnatcatchers on the land already had been declared an endangered species. Environmentalists have long fought the project, in part arguing that it would disrupt gnatcatcher breeding grounds.

Last week, the City Council gave tentative approval to selling the developer open space rights to 100 acres of city land along the Palos Verdes Drive East switchback to make up for loss of gnatcatcher habitat on the private land.

"They've already worked so closely with all the agencies involved and made an arrangement for habitat preservation," Petru said. "By taking a very conservative approach, they've been able to help themselves."

But the $35-million Ocean Trails project still does not have all the approvals it needs, opponents note.

"It is still, from an environmental and habitat protection standpoint, a disaster," said Andy Sargent, president of the Coastal Conservation Coalition, a group of conservationists opposed to the Hon-Zuckerman project. The coalition sued last year to block the Ocean Trails project, which was rejected by the California Coastal Commission last year.

At least two other Rancho Palos Verdes projects could be affected by the gnatcatcher's new status, Petru said.

She noted that one breeding pair of the birds lives on land at the western end of Hawthorne Boulevard. A builder who has permission to construct 79 homes as close as 20 yards from the birds' nest could be barred from grading the site during the nesting season, which runs from March through May, Petru said.

In addition, she said, the builder of a 41-home project off Forestall Drive near the Portuguese Bend area may have to take precautions not to disturb a nesting pair of gnatcatchers residing on a bluff overlooking the site.

But Petru said that officials "really won't know what needs to be done until all of the regulations are spelled out" later this year.

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