The 2019-2020 Forecast

Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

Looking back, the January 2018 column was titled “Can San Diego Grow Up,” a thought piece on the problem of densification versus sprawl in San Diego County. One year later, sprawl is winning, although that might not be true by the time you read this column, due to a possible court ruling on the County Climate Action Plan (CAP) on December 21, 2018. 

So going forward, what conservation issues will be important in 2019? 

Mission Bay 

The City of San Diego has three project-level EIRs in process in and around Mission Bay: the Balboa Avenue Station Area Specific Plan; the Mission Bay Master Plan Fiesta Island Amendment; and the De Anza Cove revitalization project. Of these, Balboa Avenue Station is already past the City Planning Commission and headed for the City Council. The PEIR on Fiesta Island is out for review (comments are due by January 21, 2019; email if you want to know more or get involved), and the City is still working out what to do with de Anza Cove. 

Balboa Station is about increasing housing density and allowing transit-oriented development next to the Balboa Trolley station. The major part I have trouble with is that the area is adjacent to Rose Creek and depends on a trail next to the Creek for access, but City Planners stopped the project boundary right next to Rose Creek, so that they wouldn’t have to analyze their impacts to the Creek. This is arguably against CEQA’s directions against “piecemealing,” and if some litigant wants to cause trouble, this is the obvious issue to do it over. 

As for Fiesta Island, our main issue is that there are rare plants on the island. We need to make sure that they get protected. 

De Anza cove and enlarging Kendall-Frost Marsh are things that San Diego Audubon has been working on for years. Unfortunately, the City has run the revitalization of De Anza and the ReWild plan on separate tracks, so we will see what happens when they bring the two together. Salt marsh doesn’t vote, but it does serve as a really good storm surge barrier to protect new buildings. Hopefully, the planners will understand this. And yes, I’m very much for maximizing the amount of marsh in Mission Bay, along with providing habitat for all the Bay’s plants, animals, and other life forms. To be polite though, the City and I have very different views about environmental ethics and the value of species and ecosystem services, so I try to advance arguments that will resonate with them. Like using salt marsh to protect new restaurants, instead of building these things over the water. 

Centennial and other fiery sprawls 

Old news for you by now, but new for me: yesterday LA County approved the sprawling Centennial development 4-1, with the one holdout being the Supervisor whose district got burned in the Woolsey Fire. The only reason I bring up Centennial is its nickname, “Earthquake, Wind, and Fire,” because that’s how suboptimal remaining development sites are in southern California. Centennial’s on the San Andreas fault, in an area with consistently high winds, and 31 fires have burned near or through the site in the last century. It’s bigger (40,000 people) and badder than anything we have in San Diego at the moment. It takes homeowner caveat emptor to a whole new level. As I write this, Tejon Ranch has highlighted a whole controversy that flared up after the Woolsey and Camp fires: if we can predict that a development will burn, what do we do? Currently, the Counties approve them anyway, hiding behind the notion that current building codes and evacuation plans will make the developments safe enough, despite the fact that recently built, up-to- code homes burned in the 2017 Thomas and Tubbs fires. Many people, including some well-known fire ecologists, dispute this. Even retiring CalFire Chief Ken Pimlott weighed in, saying that “‘we owe it’to homeowners, firefighters and communities ‘so that they don't have to keep going through what we're going through.’" (source: fire-chief-state-must-adapt-to-new-wildfire- norm/25475297 ). It’s telling that he waited until he was about to retire to say this, though. 

I’m sure 2019 will see continuation of the discussion about what to do about fire-sprawl. Are there technical fixes to make buildings safer, such as roof and under-eave sprinklers, next generation fireproof buildings, or possibly subterranean hobbit holes? Possibly. But even they aren’t panaceas. The bigger problem, as Emily Guerin pointed out in, is that the incentives for protecting people from fire are all misaligned. Municipalities get far more property taxes from new development than they do from old ones, thanks to Proposition 13. They also get more tax money from expensive homes than from cheap ones, no matter that we desperately need affordable housing. Developers are often generous donors to political campaigns, with all that suggests. Fire departments say that proposed developments meet current codes, giving cover to their bosses. And when homes in the hills do burn down, taxpayers backstop the insurance companies and firefighting costs, so that people can rebuild on the same site that burned. This is known technically as a moral hazard, as the risks and costs are not borne by those who profit from or decide on the development. People have been seeing the problem for a long time too, as it was discussed in the 2006 USDA report Forest Service Large Fire Suppression Costs. (Source: ing_houses_in_places_that_burn_down.php

And there is an environmental justice component to sprawl and fires. After the Camp fire burned the town of Paradise to its foundations, the LA Times suggested that perhaps this modest town shouldn’t be rebuilt. But when the Woolsey fire burned million-dollar mansions of A list stars? Silence. They get to rebuild. Well-known urban theorist Mike Davis has pointed out for years how much tax money goes to protect and rebuild homes in fire-prone hills, especially when these people tend to have wealth well above the state median. If we’re willing to subsidize fire protection and rebuilding for a mansion that burns in a wildfire, why not rebuild a shabby inner-city home if it burns by accident? That’s the environmental justice issue, that who gets rescued from their planning disasters depends in part on how wealthy they are. (source: news/2018/dec/04/california-wildfires-paradise-malibu-wealth-class). 

This is a discussion that won’t go away. And neither, I’m afraid, will the projects that spawn it. Speaking of which, here’s what’s going forward into 2019: 

  • The referendum on whether to repeal Newland Sierra’s EIR certification will likely be on the March 2020 ballot, unless a judge makes a very surprising decision before you read this. 

  • Litigation to repeal the Newland Sierra EIR certification is moving forward. 

  • The County will be approving Lilac Hills Ranch, Warner Springs Ranch, Otay Ranch Village 14 and others next year, unless yet another judge throws out the County Climate Action Plan on December 21. This might also disqualify Newland Sierra and any other project approved with the County’s CAP. Whether we’ll deal with yet another round of General Plan Amendment batching is something I also do not know. 

  • Just to keep everyone busy, the city of Escondido is set to decide on approving Safari Highlands, another fire/sprawl development just north of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Fortunately for the environmental community, the mayor and a majority of the Escondido City Council are now democrats, and they appear open to discussing the problems with Safari Highlands. 

  • The Preserve at Torrey Highlands in the City of San Diego might move forward. It’s facing local opposition, primarily on fire issues. Even though this is a single office complex, it juts into Del Mar Mesa, with no fire clearance, and it puts 1,400-odd people where they’ll have to race to get out if the mesa top ever burns with an on-shore wind pushing it east (as happened in the Cocos Fire). This one office complex would house half as many people as Newland Sierra, and they have no fire evacuation plan. Hopefully, the developers just let this one die, but they may try to ram it through the City Council. If they do, those of you who live in the City will get messages from me asking for you to talk with your councilmembers about why you don’t like putting people at risk. 

So,happy 2019. Given the list above, I hope it’s a really uneventful for all of us.