TUCSON - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a developer's plans to build nearly 100 homes on land that has been designated critical habitat for the endangered pygmy owl.
Developer Eric Tobin will be allowed to develop 20.8 acres of desert in Marana, a community about 20 miles northwest of Tucson. In return, he will leave 2.8 acres on his property undisturbed and will buy an additional 60 acres of open critical habitat spread across Pima and Pinal counties for preservation.
The parcels to be saved are within 280-acre owl territories or near where the owls have been seen, said federal officials. No owls have been seen on Tobin's parcel, said Jim Tress, the developer's biologist.
Environmentalists are concerned, however.
The federal government should have barred development on the land and paid Tobin for it by raising money in fees from new developments elsewhere in Pima County, said David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity, the group whose lawsuits led to the owl being listed as endangered,
''By definition, critical habitat includes those areas essential for survival and recovery of the pygmy owl, so you can understand our concern and confusion when the service elects to permit destruction of critical habitat,'' Hogan said.
Mike Wrigley, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Phoenix, said the plan ''provides some good conservation measures for the owl as well as Mr. Tobin's project.''
The project's approval is the first of what will likely be many service rulings affecting owl habitat on Tucson's booming northwest side.
Currently, most development in this area is on hold, as the service formally consults with developers on the effects of about a half-dozen other projects, and informally consults with landowners for about 45 more. The largest affected development is the 9,000-home, four-golf course Dove Mountain at the foot of the Tortolita Mountains.
The service must sign off on these projects before other federal agencies approve permits for developers to alter or cross washes with roads and to control storm-water runoff.
Construction on Tobin's development will wait at least another nine months until he gets approval from Marana officials for final subdivision plans involving streets, sewers, water, grading and drainage, said Barbee Hanson, Tobin's consultant.