By Frank Landis, Conservation Chair CNPS-San Diego
Despite what some may think, I'm not anything like an inside player in local politics. As the latest example, I found out that the Sierra Club and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation are each suing San Diego County again by reading about it online at the UT San Diego. CNPSSD is not involved in either lawsuit, of course--you would have heard about it otherwise. Still, these two suits are part of the difficult struggle we're all facing as San Diego grapples with diverging pressures to decarbonize, to grow, to build huge numbers of affordable homes, and to not destroy what's left of our environment. While I don't know much more about the suits than what is in the newspaper article, I do know a bit about the surrounding conditions, and that's the topic of this essay.
The Sierra Club's suit focuses on the lack of a Climate Action Plan (CAP) in the County's general plan. The reason the County doesn't have a CAP is that the Sierra Club sued over the last one in 2012, claiming that it didn't have specific action items that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Club won in 2014 at the California Supreme Court, and now the County is preparing a new CAP.
I've been part of the CAP 2.0 meetings, and I do hope they do a better job the second time. We'll see next summer when the new CAP is (hopefully) unveiled.
Underlying the conflict between the Sierra Club and the County is California law, which says that general plans are supposed to be complete before they are put into action. The County's general plan states that all the required greenhouse gas reductions are to be handled under the CAP, but there is no CAP, thanks to the Sierra Club's suit. The Sierra Club claims therefore that the County doesn't have a complete general plan, and that it therefore cannot approve developments under the general plan. To no one's surprise, the County disagrees with this idea, since we have a housing crisis to solve and everything, so now they'll settle it in court. And probably someone will appeal, and probably the other side will appeal that, and probably it will end up in front of the California Supreme Court again around 2019 or 2020.
And there's the other suit. The Cleveland National Forest Foundation was founded and is led by Duncan McFetridge, the man who back in 1993 spearheaded the effort to pass the Forest Conservation Initiative (FCI), which sunset in 2011. Since then, there has been an ongoing dispute over how public inholdings in the National Forest should be developed. The County has held that the FCI's restrictions on development on inholdings in the Cleveland National Forest was temporary, and that the 1993 rules now apply, since the FCI as originally written was not renewed. The Cleveland Forest Foundation holds that this is not the case, and now that the County has passed a revised FCI, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation is suing to stop it. The new FCI is somewhere between the 1993 plan and the FCI, and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation believes that is not good enough.
As I noted above, there are multiple issues interacting here: decarbonization, the housing crisis, environmental protection, and the underlying ideology of growth. That's what is triggering these suits. I'll start with climate change.
Those of us who have been involved in climate change issues are pretty sure that the only safe path to avoid severe climate change is "deep decarbonization," which basically means switching civilization entirely to renewable electricity as fast as possible. There are some problems with this idea: the technology is not quite there, the Feds in Trumplandia are extremely hostile to dealing with climate change, the oil and coal industries are highly resistant to losing their trillion-dollar global industry, there is a lot of societal active resistance and passive inertia, especially here in the "car culture" of southern California, as well as a lot of physical inertia embodied in the structure and infrastructure of San Diego County, too much of which was built to run on petroleum.
In the face of this mess, I can understand why politicians, especially the Republican county supervisors, might prefer to give lip service to deep decarbonization. Unfortunately, that's insufficient in California, where, like it or not, we're in the vanguard of American attempts to deal with climate change. The state has multiple laws that now say we're supposed to phase out fossil fuels.
While the idea of totally reworking civilization over, say 30 or 40 years may sound terribly rushed, I keep thinking of my grandfather. He was born in 1904, son of a doctor in rural Pennsylvania. He grew up tending his father's carthorse and hated horses, so he went into electrical engineering. By the time he died in 1971, America had gone from a country where doctors made house calls in buggies to a country that had landed a man on the moon. And we'd fought in two world wars and gone through the Great Depression. During all these upheavals , no one talked about culture shock, even as the country changed profoundly. Wouldn't it be great if we could be like my grandfather and just get on with changing the technology over?
Then there's the whole housing crisis. Yes, it would be great if there was more affordable housing in San Diego. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. For one thing, basically all of the good sites for housing developments have been built already, and many of the fights CNPSSD is engaged in are over suboptimal sites, out in the east county, on Del Mar Mesa, Otay Mesa, and elsewhere. They're places where people will have to drive a long ways to get to jobs and stores, and while these places would have worked back when gas is cheap, they are less attractive now, gridlock waiting to happen in areas that generally don't have any provision for public transit, and we're only now developing electric cars with a range to make commuting from the back country practical.
But suboptimal sites are just one part of the problem. In most of the developments I've looked at recently, developers aren't building much affordable housing. That was the problem with Measure B on last fall's ballot, which was just more big houses. Worse, when developers do try to build affordable housing, local communities (most recently Poway) go all NIMBY and force the local city councils to reject it. Personally, I'm for affordable housing, but I have to admit that when my back yard has vernal pools in it, I'm just as adamant that they don't build apartments on top of them. While we do need more housing, we're going to have to figure out where to put everyone, and that's going to take a lot of compromise.
Then there are issues around environmental protection, as I noted last month when talking about the City of San Diego's new Vernal Pool HCP. But the underlying conflict, really, is between environmental protection and growth. Growth in itself isn't always bad, but we're so stuck with our ideology of growth that it makes for problems. It doesn't matter if we're concerned about running out of water, or whether we'll get four feet of sea level rise by 2050, or whether there's a big earthquake in the next decade the people running this place assume San Diego has to grow, period. Arguments that growth isn't inevitable aren't refuted, they're simply not heard. I've read enough history to realize this is silly, that given enough time, the population of any city yo-yos around crises, but we can't talk about it here. That's why I call it an ideology, not a fact.
As you might guess, it's difficult for people to imagine preserving anything if they assume that populations are going to expand, urban areas are going to expand, and we're all going to have and need more stuff. It's an impossible assumption, of course. But if you assume that growth is not inevitable, why, we'd have to question the debts that municipalities take on to where to build roads to, well everything.
As with climate change, I think most people don't question growth because to do so opens questions to every action. It's not we can't work that way, it's that it's scary to contemplate, and we don't have a scary enough crisis to force us to think about it.
And that's where we are. We don't want to whole heartedly embrace decarbonization, we can't think about anything but growth, and affordable housing is a hot-button issue. As a result, we get into conflicts and lawsuits over environmental protection. I would suggest that everyone grow up, but I suspect that the real problem is that most of the people involved are too old and set in their ways. Unfortunately, that means that change comes through lawyers, not through politics.
Banner painting by Emily Carr.