Creation of Open Spaces
The City of Irvine has a long-established commitment to the sustainability of the local environment, the foundations of which were incorporated in the City’s General Plan and more explicitly outlined in the Conservation and Open Space Element. Leading up to the City’s incorporation in 1971, several decades of rapid development and urbanization of Orange County had already resulted in loss of biologic diversity and disruption of linkages between critical environmental systems such as watersheds and wildlife corridors. The loss of open space to urban land uses increased public awareness and prioritization of the need to properly manage the land development pattern to protect the region’s sensitive biologic resources. Thus, Irvine’s philosophy toward development has been guided by the concept of conservation, or “the wise use, management, and preservation of natural resources to assure their continued availability and viability.”
Open Space Ballot Initiative
On June 7, 1988, in the General Municipal Election, Irvine voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative Resolution 88-1, titled “An Initiative Resolution of the City of Irvine Directing the Amendment of the Conservation and Open Space Element and the Land Use Element of the Irvine General Plan.” The Open Space Initiative reflected the following principal objectives:
- To consolidate important conservation and open space areas into large contiguous areas that may be integrated into local and regional open space areas;
- To establish a network of open space spines, linking the consolidated conservation and open space areas; and
- To assure the preservation of conservation and open space areas through a phased dedication and compensating development opportunities program, acceptable to the City and owner of the land involved, which transfers development opportunities from conservation and open space areas and consolidates them in appropriate development areas.
This phased dedication and development program was incorporated in the General Plan. It was further outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding Implementing Initiative Resolution 88-1 between the City of Irvine and the Irvine Company, whereby the Irvine Company agreed to convey to the City open space lands – in the form of Preservation Areas – in exchange for development rights in other areas of Irvine. These Preservation Areas that comprise the Irvine Open Space Preserve are dedicated to the City in perpetuity as protected open space. The deeds include language that restricts the use of the land solely for infrastructure, resource conservation, habitat enhancement and passive recreation purposes such as hiking. In other words, these lands cannot ever be sold, leased or used for any commercial, office, industrial, or residential purpose. Even cell towers are prohibited!
To date, approximately 5,200 acres of the 8,000+ originally envisioned in the Open Space Initiative have been transferred to the City by the Irvine Company. These include Quail Hill, Shady Canyon, Bommer Canyon Preserve, and Orchard Hills. In the future, additional preservation areas will be incorporated into the Irvine Open Space Preserve, including lands in the Portola Springs area along Irvine’s northern border.
Natural Community Conservation Plan/Habitat Conservation Plan (NCCP/HCP)
As indicated in the updated Conservation and Open Space Element of the General Plan, and as written into the deed restrictions for the Preservation Areas, the City has committed to protect and manage the Irvine Open Space Preserve consistent with the California Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act of 1991. The NCCP is a program of the California Department of Fish & Wildlife that takes a broad-based ecosystem approach to planning for the protection and perpetuation of biological diversity throughout the State. A regional or sub-regional NCCP Implementation Plan identifies and provides for the regional protection of plants, animals and their habitats, while allowing for compatible and appropriate economic activity (such as development and recreation). Each NCCP Plan is more comprehensive in its orientation and objectives than the California and Federal Endangered Species Acts because it aims to protect individual endangered species through broad-based ecosystem preservation and restoration, rather than relying on reactive occurrence-based species protection and relocation projects. NCCPs are often combined with a federal Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which is the mechanism used by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect federally endangered species on an ecosystem level.
In California, there are currently 24 active NCCP Implementation Plans covering more than 9 million acres, including the NCCP/HCP for the County of Orange Central and Coastal Subregion. Each is governed by a local governmental or non-profit agency working in collaboration with landowners, environmental organizations and other interested parties. The City of Irvine is a signatory to the NCCP/HCP Implementation Agreement of the Central and Coastal Subregion, along with the County of Orange, Orange County Fire Authority, University of California Irvine, Transportation Corridor Agency and various other entities and municipal agencies. The Agreement, which was approved by the City Council in 1996, requires the City to commit to a number of habitat protection and management activities, including General Plan and zoning amendments, fuel modification standards, conservation easements, and development of an adaptive management plan to balance habitat protection with development and public access.
In essence, what the NCCP/HCP represents for the City of Irvine is permission from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to freely develop the community in exchange for permanent protection and responsible management of the Irvine Open Space Preserve. In the absence of this document, every new development project (whether commercial, residential or otherwise) submitted to the City for approval would have to be evaluated and regulated under the California and Federal Endangered Species Acts, which require mitigation for impacts to endangered plant and animal communities.
Natural Communities Coalition
The oversight of the Central and Coastal Subregion NCCP/HCP reserve system is administered by a non-profit corporation, the Natural Communities Coalition (NCC), whose board is comprised of the public and private owners of protected open space land, wildlife agencies, local governments, and community representatives. NCC is responsible for coordination and monitoring of the various protection, restoration, education, and recreation projects and programs implemented by each landowner, including the City of Irvine. NCC does not directly own nor manage lands within the Central and Coastal NCCP Reserve system, nor does it have enforcement powers or authority over individual jurisdictions or landowners. Its purpose is to facilitate development and implementation of the various land management policies and programs required of landowners under the terms of the NCCP/HCP Implementation Agreement, including:
- Fire Management
- Recreation and Public Access
Recreation and Resource Management Plans
Although NCC is charged with the coordination and oversight of the Central and Coastal Subregion NCCP/HCP reserve system, the City of Irvine is held accountable for the day-to-day management of the Irvine Open Space Preserve in a manner consistent with the terms of the NCCP/HCP and associated Environmental Impact Report. As stipulated by the NCCP/HCP, the City must develop policies and programs for activities on the land, based on an “adaptive management” philosophy. Adaptive management is the “flexible, iterative approach to long-term management of biotic resources that is directed over time by the results of ongoing monitoring activities and other information. Under this approach, biological management techniques and specific objectives are regularly evaluated in light of monitoring results and other new information. These periodic evaluations are used over time to adapt both the management objectives and techniques to better achieve overall management goals.”
The overall objective of adaptive management of the Irvine Open Space Preserve is to provide for a continuous adaptation of policies, programs, and infrastructure which are crafted to ensure a sustainable balance between habitat conservation and public enjoyment of the land. The City’s adaptive management policies and procedures are described in detail in two Recreation and Resource Management Plans: one for the southern and one for the northern portion of the Irvine Open Space Preserve. These Plans include a detailed description of localized biotic resources, as well as a detailed discussion of the City’s procedures for operations, public recreation programs, public access infrastructure (e.g. trails), and restoration and enhancement projects. Both Plans were reviewed by NCC and approved by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).
On an annual basis, the City must also submit to NCC, CDFW and USFWS an Annual Work Plan and Progress Report, which demonstrates that the City’s land management activities are consistent with both the approved Recreation and Resource Management Plans and the NCCP/HCP. The Annual Report includes a discussion of the observed impact of public access and infrastructure on the target species and habitats in the Irvine Open Space Preserve, as well as specific recommendations for modification to existing practices aimed at minimizing adverse impacts to those biologic resources. The City’s Annual Report is incorporated in a larger document which includes annual data from each of the landowners within the Natural Communities Coalition, which can be found on the NCC website.