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Group to Ask Court to Save Rare Plant

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An endangered plant found in only four places in the world is being destroyed by development in Oak Park, environmentalists and federal wildlife officials contend.

A lawyer for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Center said the group plans to go to court this week to temporarily halt further development of an Oak Park parcel that contains Braunton’s milkvetch, a federally recognized endangered species.

The 10-acre site is being developed by the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District for use as a park. Pardee Construction, which is building 315 homes on an adjacent 160-acre parcel, is doing the grading for the district.

The injunction request is the latest chapter in a lawsuit filed June 9 by the California Native Plant Society. Environmentalists want to halt the grading until the lawsuit is resolved or until Ventura County--the regulatory body for the Oak Park area--develops a new preservation plan for the site.

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“The whole thing is really a mess as far as I can see,” said John Buse, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, which is representing the plant society. "[Preservation efforts] seem to have utterly failed in this case.”

Officials from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have begun an investigation, asking the service’s law enforcement division to determine whether the county broke state or federal laws.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the plant society by the Environmental Defense Center, names the park district, the county and Pardee Construction as defendants.

The suit alleges that the county’s plan to preserve the rare plant has failed, and that the county and Pardee have not fulfilled their obligations under that plan.

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Hugh Hewitt, an Irvine-based lawyer representing the defendants, denied that the development has harmed the endangered plant. The plant, Astragalus brauntonii, is found in only three other places in the world--Anaheim Canyon, Monrovia and the upper Santa Ynez Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“The plant is flourishing,” Hewitt said.

County lawyer Robert Orellana agreed, saying the lawsuit is “bogus” and has actually hindered efforts to further protect the plant.

The legal arguments center on revisions made in 1995 to a preservation plan included in an environmental impact report on proposed development in the Oak Park area.

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When the plan was changed, wildlife service officials and environmentalists contend, it replaced the idea of preserving native habitats with the concept of “transplanting” plants to other sites.

They say the changes also gave Pardee discretion over what constitutes adequate preservation.

“That’s like the fox watching the henhouse,” said Kirk Waln, a biologist for the wildlife service, adding that transplant efforts under the revised plan are “entirely experimental.”

According to a July 27 letter from the federal wildlife service to county Planning Director Keith Turner, the service’s law enforcement division is trying to determine whether the county violated state environmental laws or the federal Endangered Species Act.

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“All the native populations in the Oak Park site are gone,” Waln said. “We’re losing the population at this point.”


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