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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Davis owls face eviction at Marriott Residence Inn

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Burrowing Owl Preservation Society sues City of Davis for improper assessment of environmental impact of Marriott hotel

The Burrowing Owl Preservation Society (BOPS), which aims to educate the public and support conservation efforts for our feathered friends, filed a lawsuit on Jan. 5 against the City of Davis for its insufficient report on the environmental implications of the Marriott Residence Inn building site.

A pair of burrowing owls lives on the vacant plot of land located on Fermi Place, near the Mace Boulevard and 2nd Street intersection in East Davis. The hotel, which plans to break ground this fall, will stand four-stories tall with 120 rooms, a meeting room and other amenities; however, the burrowing owls will no longer have a place to reside once the project beings.

In 2007, BOPS conducted a study that counted 63 breeding pairs of burrowing owls in Yolo County. In 2014, a census calculated that the estimated population declined to 15 breeding pairs. This sharp decline was attributed to a loss of habitats, a presence of predators and the California drought.

Burrowing owls were once extensively dispersed and were considered common birds but they have substantially dwindled down in the past half century. Now the population stands as a State Species of Special Concern and a Federal Bird of Conservation Concern.

Janet Foley, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine, works as a board member for the BOPS. Foley hopes to create a dialogue between conservationists, the City of Davis and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to protect these owls, which can then be a model for better protection for birds statewide.

“In Davis, virtually every spot that used to have owls has no owls,” Foley said.
“This is in my backyard and I feel that this city presents itself as environmentally friendly. I think it’s really important in a university town that it is environmentally friendly and we take care of one of our most endangered resources.”

Attorney Dan Mooney is representing BOPS for this case. BOPS alleges the council inaccurately concluded that the construction of the hotel would not have a substantial effect on the environment despite the abundant evidence that proves otherwise.

The complaint called into question the city council’s decision to approve a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the Marriott property. An MND states that an initial study yielded no significant impact on the environment and that certain mitigations will reduce or eliminate the implications of the project; no further studies are needed. It assesses whether there may be a slight impact on the surrounding habitat but certain mitigations lessen or eradicate the aftereffects to less than significant, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“We are not opposed to the hotel,” said Catherine Portman, the BOPS president. “Our issue is not with the developer or the builder. Our issue is with the City of Davis certifying an MND as an adequate level of CEQA review when there are burrowing owls on the property. They should not count eviction as mitigation.”

BOPS decided to take legal action to call attention to the shortcomings of CEQA and of Davis’ leadership. The council’s MND called for “passive relocation” of the fowl. BOPS strongly opposed this mitigation and explained that this method evicts the owls from their burrows, which the CDFW still allows and routinely practices.

“Passive relocation” involves installing one-way doors on the burrows, which provide owls with shelter year-round. Once the owls leave the burrow, they cannot return. The owls are often harmed through the repercussions of this forced removal and may not always find new places to burrow due to existing developments, much like in the case of the pair at Fermi Place.

“City council made a statement on Tuesday night (Jan. 24) at the council meeting…[that] the council believes the city went beyond what is legally required in mitigating the impact of the project on burrowing owls,” said Katherine Hess, a Davis community development administrator. “We believe that petitioners should take their concerns to [CDFW] since they are the regulating agency and the city must comply with Fish and Wildlife requirements.”

Written By: Bianca Antunez — city@theaggie.org

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