- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. (AP) — Did someone in this wine-country town illegally plant an endangered flower to sabotage a proposed housing development? That is the question at the center of a quarrel that folks here have dubbed “Foamgate.”

Bob Evans, a 72-year-old retired elementary school principal, said he was walking with his dog last year when he came upon the tiny white flowers of Sebastopol meadowfoam poking from shallow pools of water in a grassy field.

The former bean farm happens to be the site chosen for the 20-acre Laguna Vista housing development.

Mr. Evans and other opponents seized on the discovery of the federally protected species in hopes that it would force the developer to scale back plans for 145 houses and apartments. “It was the bad luck of the developer that it popped up,” Mr. Evans said.

But state wildlife officials investigated and concluded that the meadowfoam had been transplanted there. They ordered it dug up.

This year, the flowers returned, and with them the controversy. The dispute has held up final approval of the building project.

Sebastopol, a well-to-do community of about 8,000 people located 50 miles north of San Francisco, is known for its environmentally conscious residents and restrictive growth policies.

“Our community takes a very hard, careful look at development,” said Kenyon Webster, the town’s planning director. “That small-town character is the reason a lot of people want to live here.”

When the meadowfoam appeared in April 2005, and the California Department of Fish and Game determined it had been planted, it appeared to be the work of zealous conservationists.

“The people who planted it mistakenly believed that it would be the silver bullet that killed the project,” said Scott Schellinger of Schellinger Brothers, the developer behind Laguna Vista.

Known as Limnanthes vinculans, the herbs grow up to a foot tall and have small bowl-shaped white flowers. They are found only in seasonal wetlands and pools created by spring rains in this part of Sonoma County.

Threatened by agriculture and urban development, meadowfoam is listed as an endangered species by the state and federal governments. That makes it illegal to harm, remove or transplant the plant without permission.

Mr. Evans and other conservationists say the $70 million development could damage the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, a 240-square-mile basin of wetlands that runs through Sebastopol.

Mr. Evans called Sonoma State University biology professor Phil Northen and the head of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. They visited the site and agreed the plants were native.

But when a Department of Fish and Game team visited the site at Mr. Schellinger’s invitation a few weeks later, it reached the opposite conclusion.

Eric Larsen, the department’s deputy regional manager, said the flowers never before had been seen at the site, which is at a higher elevation than the typical meadowfoam habitat.

“They didn’t belong there,” Mr. Larsen said.

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