For decades, homes and wildlife have coexisted in Southern California mountains and hills, where residents easily recall their first encounter with a bobcat who jumped their fence, a bear who wandered into their backyard, or a mountain lion who crossed a popular trail. But due to widespread development that co-existence may end, with biologists and environmentalists warning that construction in desirable neighborhoods threatens corridors that are crucial to wildlife.
Wildlife corridors create a path for deer, bears, bobcats and other animals to move around in urban areas and to search for food even as climate change, drought and overdevelopment push animals from their traditional habitats.
“The wildlife corridor system is like your body’s circulatory system,” said Paul Edelman, deputy director of natural resources and planning at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “In some places, you’ve got bigger arteries but in some places you have very narrow ones. … If you block connection, you sever the system. Whatever is on one side of that blockage, dies.”
Although wild lands and residential areas have been intermixed for a long time, he said, the system is fragile.
A proposed ordinance rolled out by Los Angeles city planners this year seeks to protect habitat connectivity in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains which are bordered by the 405 and 101 freeways and partially bordered on the south by Sunset Boulevard. The proposed Wildlife District would directly impact hilly communities in the Hollywood Hills, Hollywood, Bel Air, Beverly Crest, Laurel Canyon, Sherman Oaks and Studio City. The southern border of the proposed district follows a stair-stepping line just north of Franklin Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and smaller streets in Beverly Hills.
The proposed ordinance follows the 2016 Wildlife Pilot Study released after Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz introduced a motion to balance wildlife habitat and private property development.
While the concept of protecting habitats from development is not rare, experts say LA’s proposed concept is unique and detailed.
In recent years, laws that address connectivity in urban areas have been gaining steam across the country.
The recently passed Florida Wildlife Corridor Act specifies a network of green space for wildlife that stretches across 18 million acres. The ordinance was drafted in response to the risk of extinction of the Florida panther, which since 1972 has been on the US endangered species list. In Vermont, so-called “Special Features Overlay zones,” ensure the protection of ecological resources and include wetlands, meadowlands, steep slopes and the forested area used by deer.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted in 2017 to direct its planning department to create the Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Movement Corridors, encompassing 420,000 acres or nearly 30% of Ventura County.
Still, the proposed Los Angeles ordinance, along with the protections in Ventura County, contain some of the most comprehensive and detailed laws in the nation, said SC Wildlands director Kristeen Penrod, a connectivity specialist for The Center for Large Landscape Conservation who is working with the government of Tanzania to establish wildlife corridors there.
If the ordinance is approved by the Los Angeles City Council, it would place limits on future construction in the Wildlife District. Owners of existing homes wouldn’t be affected if they don’t make major changes to their structures. But homeowners who decide to add a floor or knock down more than 70% of their house would need to acquire a new building permit. They would also need to install wildlife-friendly fencing around their homes.
Southern California is one of 25 “global biodiversity hotspots” in the world, which means it has a high number of species that occur nowhere else in the world. As climate change progresses, Penrod said, connected habitats will be highly important as species try to move closer to the coasts, where temperatures are cooler.
“All those juveniles have to be able to move somewhere and often offspring don’t share the same home range as their parents,” Penrod said. “They have to go somewhere else. That’s why these movement corridors are so important.”
Edelman at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy said he couldn’t “think of anything this comprehensive in California, that gets into the kind of fine details” as the ordinance now on the Los Angeles Planning Department’s desk.
On Wednesday, July 13, more than 200 people joined a lively 4.5-hour virtual public hearing hosted by the Los Angeles Planning Department so the public could share their thoughts about the ordinance. The crowd was divided, with passionate arguments from both sides.
One resident said the law could potentially strip him of the ability to retire or pay for the education of his children. Other residents expressed concerns that they did not have enough time to study the proposal and its impact on their properties.
Dan Harrison, a resident who could potentially be impacted, said he supported biodiversity and protecting wildlife and mitigating climate change. However, he felt there was a disconnect between some of the restrictions in the ordinance and those goals.
“I have done everything possible to reduce my carbon footprint, but this proposal is taking off my private property rights,” Harrison said. “It’s great to say that people should have open spaces, (but) there should be a respect for private property rights that I think is lacking in some of this one-size-fits-all ordinance.”
Allison McCracken, another resident, criticized the level of outreach to residents. She added that the ordinance “introduces the most radical property regulations the hills have ever seen.”
Proponents of the ordinance encouraged city planners to make the proposed district in the Santa Monica Mountains a sanctuary for wildlife.
Glenn Bailey, a resident of Encino, spoke in support, encouraging the city to expand the district’s boundaries by jumping across the 405 Freeway to take in land west of the 405, and take “meaningful action for our wildlife.”
Marcia Hanscom, a longtime Sierra Club leader, urged city officials to approve the ordinance as soon as possible. “I hope for future extension of these important planning regulations to include both areas west of the 405 freeway and the coastal areas of Los Angeles,” she said.
Brendan Wilce, a staff conservation advocate with the California Native Plant Society, spoke in support of the ordinance. Wilce said it would help address “habitat loss and fragmentation, which drives major mass extinction.” He said species are “disappearing at a rate more than 1,000 times greater than the background extinction rate due to climate change and increased human-caused ignitions.”
The public hearing period has been extended to Aug. 22 at 5 pm so anyone who couldn’t join the department’s meeting can send written comments to email@example.com. The Los Angeles Planning Commission is expected to vote on the ordinance in September.
Joanne D’Antonio, who chairs the trees committee in the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance and represents City Council District 2 on the Community Forest Advisory Committee, called for city residents to weigh in with support for the Wildlife District by Aug. 22. “We need to ensure the health of the people of Los Angeles, because we need the whole ecosystem — which is protected by preserving the wildlife and the trees,” D’Antonio said.
Penrod said the ordinance is a step in the right direction.
“So much has been accomplished in the last few decades in terms of maintaining and improving connectivity across Southern California,” she said. “If everybody just does a little bit, we get there and it will benefit us all.”