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Hyundai moved heaven, earth, tortoises to build test facility
By JOE MULLIN, Californian staff writer
e-mail: [email protected]

Posted: Monday July 18th, 2005, 9:35 PM
Last Updated: Monday July 18th, 2005, 11:06 PM

To build a test track in the Mojave Desert, Hyundai had to deal with two forms of life: absentee landowners and desert tortoises.
Neither was happy to leave. But even without lawyers, the turtles got a lot more cash.

According to California City Mayor Larry Adams, Hyundai spent about $10 million on environmental mitigation. As part of that spending, the company relocated 27 tortoises to two fenced preserve areas on the north side of California City -- at a cost of about $250,000 per tortoise. Hyundai could not confirm those figures.

The humans in question were either very hopeful investors or victims of land fraud, depending on who you ask.

In the 1950s and '60s, land in and around California City was subdivided by speculators and sold around the world. But most of those parcels have no roads that reach them, so unless a developer comes in willing to pay for utilities and access, the land isn't worth much.

Today, subdividing small lots without providing roads is illegal.

"It's a land scam city," said California City Mayor Larry Adams. "We have people coming through this town today that have never seen the land they own. They don't even know where it is."

Just less than half the land slated for the test track was owned by a real estate company affiliated with Union Pacific Railroad. The other part was divided into 203 parcels, the owners spread as far as China and Germany.

They were dreamers, many with deeds to just a few acres of the Mojave, hoping to get rich if California's cities sprawled out to the desert's far edge.

"My clients have a right to hold it for years and sell it when development gets out there," said Don Johnson, an attorney who filed a lawsuit challenging the city's right to condemn land for the track. "Bakersfield was remote desert when my grandparents were around."

At issue in the lawsuit is whether the city has the right to condemn vacant land as "blighted." Johnson maintains the city can't condemn vacant desert land. City officials say it is legal and that the small, inaccessible parcels block development.

Most owners settled. In 2003, the city began eminent domain proceedings, confiscating the land of those unwilling to sell.

Only 16 of the original 203 parcels are still being negotiated, said an attorney working for California City.

Prices paid for 10-acre parcels ranged from $900 per acre to more than $2,200 per acre, according to public records. City officials said the average price was around $1,000 per acre. The track site is 4,500 acres, though much of that land isn't used.

The tortoises got much more of Hyundai's money. But then, they were settled in, living a practical life in their burrows.

Despite recurrent droughts, in a good year they could get all the water and food they needed. And as an endangered species they were protected by state and federal wildlife agencies.

They deserved the red-carpet treatment, their defenders say.

"It's not really an even trade," said Alice Karl, the ecologist hired by Hyundai to supervise the tortoise eviction. "You're taking a big chunk of land that the tortoises have lived on for a long time. They're pretty old."

In October 2003, Hyundai paid for about 50 biologists to come to the swath of desert where the track would be built. Over a few days, the scientists walked the area in a line, meters apart, to find the 27 tortoises that lived in the area. The tortoises were tagged with radio transmitters.

Relocation began the following April. Biologists captured the tortoises, moving them while they slept. They dug them new burrows on new land -- two fenced preserves, 2.25 square miles in total, on the north side of California City. Hyundai bought the land, which will be turned over to the California Department of Fish and Game.

The company also had to fund a four-year study monitoring the tortoises' health in their new land. Karl and her co-workers will compare the tortoises' progress to a control group living outside the preserve. She wants to know if the area can support a higher density of tortoises, as the Mojave used to before the mid-'80s, when droughts began.

Compelling large companies to fund such studies isn't unusual when they develop in endangered species' habitat, Karl said. Hyundai also had to promise not to expand the track in order to keep the land around it tortoise-friendly.

Hyundai also had to provide compensatory lands for the Mohave ground squirrel and replant Joshua trees.

"They gave the environmentalists way too much in my opinion," Adams said. "Pretty soon you and I are going to have to borrow money from the tortoises."
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