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Proposed School Hits Federal Roadblocks

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The county’s fastest-growing school district is desperately trying to relieve overcrowding at Capistrano Valley High School, but its proposal to build a new high school at a 12-acre wetlands habitat has raised objections by two federal agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency, urging the district to find another location, has blocked permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would let the Capistrano Unified School District proceed with the $45-million high school.

“The habitat is sensitive and rare and hard to re-create,” said Rebecca Tuden, wetlands regulatory permit manager for the EPA. About 98% of Southern California’s original wetlands are already gone, she added.

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“This whole portion of Orange County, Chiquita and Trabuco [canyons], is undeveloped and pristine,” Tuden said. “There are numerous endangered species up and down the waterways. There are rare plants, and it’s functioning as an important wildlife corridor.”

Additionally, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service is directing the district to avoid the most sensitive wetlands area and has asked that a 300-foot buffer be placed between the wetlands and structures or roads.

“We certainly think the mitigation needs to be strengthened,” said Jim Bartel, assistant field superintendent at the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We object to the project in its present form.”

The district wants to build a 200,000-square-foot facility for 2,200 students, playing fields, parking lots and an access road at Oso Parkway. It purchased 40 acres in 1992 for $4.8 million and has spent about $1.2 million on planning and design.

Delays could hurt the district’s ability to obtain about $22 million in state funds reserved for the high school. The district is raising the rest of the money for construction through something similar to bonds.

“The EPA is mistaken as to the significance of the site,” said Andi Culbertson, an environmental planning consultant hired by the district. “Once they consider all the information available, I hope they will change their minds.”

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the school district must prove that this site is the least environmentally damaging and that there are no viable alternatives where a school can be built.

“There were other sites that would have less impact, and they were not considered,” Tuden said. Alternative high school sites can be found in the Ladera and Las Flores planned communities, she said.

During a meeting Tuesday, school district officials told the Army Corps of Engineers that it is too expensive to purchase another site. However, at least two alternative school sites have been considered.

“We are focusing our energies on the current site we own [and plan] to move forward with construction,” said David Doomey, assistant superintendent of facilities planning.

Tuden insists that the wetlands habitat is important and that the school should be built elsewhere. The habitat is home to a rare plant species and wildlife, including the California gnatcatcher, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The development, at the headwaters of the San Juan Creek, would also affect water quality by increasing sediments and eliminating the natural filtering mechanisms that wetlands offer, Tuden said, explaining that wetlands act like sponges to absorb materials instead of channeling materials.

The school district originally proposed destroying 3.9 acres of alkali meadows, 4.8 acres of alkali marsh, 2.2 acres of freshwater marsh, 0.9 acres of mule fat scrub and 0.2 acres of Southern willow scrub.

But pressure from federal environmental agencies prompted the district to modify its original proposal. The district now plans to offset some damage to the wetlands by constructing an on-site wetlands habitat for students to use in an environmental science academy.

“The wetlands will be cared for by the students, and they will develop an appreciation for the environment,” Culbertson said. “What better place than Chiquita Canyon?”

Other modifications include protecting the California gnatcatcher’s coastal sage scrub habitat. The new design has scaled back parking lots and placed lighted ball fields where they won’t disturb the birds’ nesting area.

A stunning 7% annual enrollment growth is one reason district officials are fighting to obtain permits quickly so they can open the school by September 2001. But the EPA’s objections have caused the district “extended delays,” said Doomey.

Further, the district has offered to restore 16.4 acres of wetlands area in the Gobernadora Ecological Restoration Area in Rancho Mission Viejo. This agreement, under the government’s Natural Communities Conservation Plan, allows developers to buy credit to offset the loss of wetlands caused by construction projects.

Capistrano officials met with the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday to try to iron out an agreement, but they still need to supply more information and possibly further modify their plan, said corps spokesman Herb Nesmith.

The corps “will look at the project and alternatives and determine which is the least environmentally damaging and practicable alternative,” he said.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said the district’s current proposal does not meet its guidelines to replace each acre destroyed with three acres of wetlands area, or 36 acres. The district offer totals only 18.7 acres.

The alkali wetlands habitats are rare and considered the most extensive in Orange County, one of eight known in the state. Also, the development threatens one of the state’s two remaining large populations of the rare Southern spikeplant, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Yet the district believes that it can make up for any damage to the wetlands.

“It is one thing to say [the wetlands] are significant, another thing to say they are irreplaceable,” Culbertson said. “Alkali can be re-created somewhere else.”


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