Trick or Treat!

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.

I'm writing right after the October plant sale, and you will be probably reading this in early November. So why the Halloween theme? Here are four projects I'm dealing with, or will be dealing with soon. I'll let you figure out whether we're getting tricked or properly treated with.

Project 1: City of San Diego Vernal Pool Habitat Conservation Plan (VPHCP). This one has been ongoing since 2011. This is version 2, because the City failed to follow version 1, was sued successfully by a coalition that included CNPS, and was forced to come up with a new VPHCP. The document is supposed to conserve habitat (vernal pools) for seven listed species, including vernal pool plants and fairy shrimp.

In any event, the final EIR (FEIR) came out on Friday, October 6 at 5:44 pm (why Friday evening, you ask?), and it is going to the San Diego City Planning Commission on October 19, which means this will be old news when you read this.

The VPHCP is....almost okay. Probably, if City Planning was willing to sit down with the environmental community and hash it out, we could come up with a decent compromise version that would satisfy everyone. Unfortunately, there's little indication from the FEIR that they are willing to do this, so I'm testifying in front of the Planning Commission, asking them to not send it to the City Council until the issues get fixed.

One big problem is that the City's vernal pool database is incomplete. They decided back in 2011 that they were not going to do any new surveys for the VPHCP, instead asserting that their decade-plus of old surveys had identified all vernal pools.

Because I have spent years on Del Mar Mesa, I was able to demonstrate that the vernal pool database is missing at least 25 pools from Del Mar Mesa, and another 16 pools that they list no longer exist. Together this is about 10% of the pool inventory on Del Mar Mesa. All of these pools are "road pools," formed where dirt roads cross the vernal pool areas and trucks got bogged and dug out ruts that became pools.

Obviously, the road pools are not "wild" pools, but the problem for the City is that the road pools are about the only pools that fill with water at the height of the drought. Vernal pool species like fairy shrimp find their way into these road ruts, and during the height of the last drought, the only place where the covered species were active on Del Mar Mesa were in road pools.

The City is willing to document and protect some road pools, but it cannot protect pools whose existence it does not acknowledge. In the FEIR, they try to make the case that these pools were new since 2011, but as I found by looking at old images on Google Earth, the roads and at least some of the pools were visible back in 1994.

I want to see the City update its vernal pool database so that all the active pools are protected all the time. Otherwise, we may have to go back to court to ask the judges what they think about this omission.

Project 2: Safari Highlands. This is a long-dreaded development that is proposed for immediately north and uphill from the San Diego Safari Park (hence Safari Highlands). This project was announced about 4 pm on Friday, October 13. Coincidentally, I'm sure. The EIR has a 52 day review period (usually they are 30 or 60 days), so that it covers both Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Safari Highlands is another Lilac Hills Ranch/Newland Sierra-style leapfrog sprawling bad idea. This one puts hundreds of houses deep in the hills next to Rancho Guejito, on the north side of San Pasqual Valley and over the hills from Valley Center. In other words, fire country. While there are technically exits, both of them connect to a single road that leads to all the houses. I'm going to go through the EIR biology and greenhouse gas impacts with a fine-toothed comb, but in the wake of those horrendous fires up in northern California, it's worth taking a long, very cold, look at developments that look just like the neighborhoods that burned in

Santa Rosa. CNPS fire policy is that we want both plants and people to be safe, but simple humanity says—at least to me—that we shouldn't put people in harm's way, especially by putting dense neighborhoods in dangerous areas with only one way out.

Various environmental groups and especially the San Pasqual Valley Preservation Alliance (SPVPA.ORG) are out in force to oppose this. If this project makes your blood boil, I urge you to get in touch with them. You can also email me ( ) for help writing a comment letter. Comments are due December 7.

Project 3: Lilac Hills Ranch. It's ba-ack. If you believe the article in the Valley Roadrunner on September 29 ( ranch-time-for-a-new-narrative/ ), the developers behind Lilac Hills Ranch are still pushing this development through the County process, with the idea of getting the Supervisors to approve it in 2018, or maybe 2019.

Yes, this is the same development that was immolated by voters (Measure B) by a 2-1 margin. You would think that the developer would get the message, but in our post-truth era, initiatives are negotiable or something. Worse, some of the candidates running to replace Bill Horn in 2018 are waffling on whether they would support this.

Therefore, I have a favor to ask: call or email your county supervisor and tell them to honor the will of the voters in Measure B, and to vote against Lilac Hills Ranch if it ever comes before them. If you talk to any supervisorial candidate, ask them their position on Lilac Hills Ranch and urge them to vote against it. And let me know how it goes. If you're unsure what to say, contact me and I'll be happy to help out.

As the voters knew last year, Lilac Hills Ranch isn't affordable housing, it's about packing people into a high fire danger area with inadequate access, and charging them average housing prices. Again, if you're having flashbacks to Santa Rosa, this is the kind of thing we're trying to prevent.

Project 4: CalFire Vegetation Treatment Program. Late last month I heard that the Board of Forestry had approved CalFire sending version 4(!) of the draft EIR for the state Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) sometime in late October. When and if this comes out, it will be the latest iteration of the worst EIR I've so far read, and I've commented on two of the last three versions. If anyone wants to start a betting pool, I'd bet that this will be released after 4 pm, Friday, October 27. Since in the past they've put it out for review for 60 days, October 27 would be their attempt to mess up Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Want to bet?

The basic problem with previous versions of the VTP (as you may remember—I've written about it before) is that it's a boondoggle. In the last edition, if you divided the third of the state that they wanted to treat by the acreage they were prepared to treat per year, they'd treat each acre once every 250 years. This is obviously not how you clear vegetation to try to keep people safe from fire, and the problems only start there. But I'll cut this particular rant short, because I may want to use it next month.

Besides, there are bigger issues here. One is that CalFire has already signed onto a Memorandum of Understanding with a number of northern California environmental groups, including CNPS, to do more ecologically sophisticated controlled burn program in the forests of northern California. We're fine with this. However, CalFire is also pushing this VTP. Is it internal politics? Are they being disingenuous? We don't know. The point is that we're not against trying to make people and forests safer, but this VTP isn't it.

On a more serious note, I sincerely, sincerely hope that CalFire does not issue the VTP right now. From what's happening in Northern California as I write this, it's pretty obvious that our regulations around clearance for fire in the wildland urban interface (WUI), and our regulations for building fire-safe housing, are seriously inadequate. Embers are flying well past the protected houses on the WUI and burning up developments that were thought to be safe.

Since CalFire is quite literally in the hot seat, rather than releasing the VTP version 4 now, I hope that they fight this year's fires, process the lessons of the 2017 fire season, and put those into the VTP. If embers fly miles in hurricane-force winds, no one can clear enough of any sort of vegetation to keep fires away from housing developments. While there are very good reasons to clear and give firefighters a place to work safely, bulldozing huge swaths of the landscape isn't going to make people any safer, especially if the clearing is only done once a century or less.

So...tricks or treats? Happy November.