Sprawl, Fire, Water: More Fun for 2019

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

To continue the theme of last month’s news update, here’swhere we are as of the middle of January when I wrote this.

County Climate Action Plan

At Christmas, an appellate court judge threw out the County Climate Action Plan version 3.0. Several days later, the County appealed, on a 3-2 split decision (Supervisors Jacob and Fletcher dissenting). The appeal will go to the California Supreme Court. If this follows the previous five rulings or so, the County will lose, but this will take months to play out.

My concern is whether the County decides to pass the other batched developments from last year in the interim. They all to my knowledge depend on the CAP, so if the County approves them, they would be struck down if the judge rules against the CAP. Possibly there would be penalties for the County to presume about judicial rulings. While approving these developments now seems silly to me, there’s a certain streak of doubling down in at least two of the Supervisors, so I don’t know if they’ll go for it or not. Depending on what the County does, we may have to step up our efforts to oppose Lilac Hills Ranch and Otay Ranch Village 14.

Newland Sierra

Litigation by the developer, to block the citizen referendum to repeal the County’s approval of the project, failed. The referendum will be on the March 2020 ballot, along with the SOS initiative to put all County General Plan amendments that increase housing density to a vote of the people. This also means that the Newland Sierra developer will not break ground before March 2020. Without the referendum, they could conceivably start building now. The problem any developer faces is that, while they have a permit to build, ifthey lose that permit in court after they’ve broken ground,they must put it all back the way it was before the court case started. Since the Newland site holds things like oak trees and old chaparral, this will be extremely expensive.

There is also a tie-in to the CAP litigation. In the Newland Sierra case, the County and developer lawyers assert that, because the Newland EIR was written before the CAP was approved (its greenhouse gas section was based on preliminary guidance the County provided before it issued the CAP), it is not affected by the problems with the CAP. The plaintiffs and the judge in the CAP case all noted that the language about mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in the Newland Sierra EIR appears identical to the language in the CAP that the judge rejected. However, that judge did not rule on the Newland Sierra EIR, stating due process requires that case to go forward, so that everyone got their day in court.

Fire News

In the wake of the last two years of horrendous fall fires and the election of a new governor, there’s been a lot of talk around wildfires and wildfire safety. Hopefully it will lead to more useful action. CNPS is talking about creating more local versions of the Fire Recovery Guide that they wrote in 2017 after the Wine Country Fires, and our chapter is exploring creating a recovery guide for San Diego County. Assuming this goes forward, we’ll be reaching out for fire pictures to make this guide suitable for our area.

The Wine Country Fire Recovery Guide is available as a free pdf from CNPS now. It is aimed at providing resources to help people whose land had burned figure out how to recover. Much of that advice is readily transferable down here, so if this goes ahead, hopefully it will be ready by the fall.

Also in fire news, things are getting political (e.g.https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/science-environment/environment-report-county-fire-marshal-is-at-the-center-of-a-political-firestorm-over-new-development). One of the big fights is whether homes have to have large swathes of defensible space around them to be worth saving during a fire. A related problem is the assertion that more urban, more tightly packed homes are less fire prone. While CNPS does support the concept of defensible space, it’s worth noting that in both the 2018 Camp Fire and in the 2017 Tubbs Fires, densely packed neighborhoods burned. Where is defensive space necessary? This is going to be a messy discussion, and hopefully we can keep it science based and about risk reduction, not about people being safe if their homes are built to the current (2008) building code. In Paradise, only 13% of homes built since 2008 survived the fire, compared to 4% of homes built before 2008. There’s still a lot more that needs to be done.

Oh, and PG&E will declare bankruptcy, due to the $30 billion it may be on the hook for possibly causing 17 fires in northern California. We’ll see if the state bails them out again.

Water

I hope we’ve gotten weeks more rain since I write this (in the rain-yay!), but here I’m talking about the bigger water situation. If you’ve been following Ry Rivard’s reporting in the Voice of San Diego (e.g.https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/science- environment/things-are-getting-crazy-on-the-colorado-river), you know that the managers of the Colorado River are edging closer and closer to declaring an emergency when the water elevation on Lake Mead falls to 1,075 feet. At that point, they start rationing water, and we start getting less water piped in. The smart money bets this will happen in 2020. If we see a dry year, it might happen in 2019. In any event, San Diego County did a deal years ago to use somewater that would otherwise go to Imperial County, so we’re currently insulated from the problem. When we stop being insulated, though, things might get bad rapidly.

One place they get bad is in where the water is needed for new sprawl developments. There have been questions all along about whether southern California water districts can actually provide water and sanitation to these big new developments. The local districts have all claimed they can, while critics who have looked at their water and sanitation accounting have raised questions. Once Colorado River water starts being rationed, the only new source of water will be desalinated ocean water or reclaimed waste water, not all of which can reach these inland developments. It’s going to be messy. Will San Diego County follow LA County’s lead and allow developments to proceed without guaranteed water sources? Rationally they shouldn’t, but to put it politely, the County and I have different standards of rationality.

Putting this all together, I’d say that standard model, leapfrog sprawl development, is nearing its end in southern California. In between fire risk and water shortages, it looks increasingly unlikely that people will be able to build or buy a home out in the back country and drive for an hour or two to get to their jobs. Will urban infill and densification replace it or not? This affects all of us, because people are still reportedly moving to southern California. Where are they going to live? There is opposition to densification, too. People in the cities are fighting condos and apartments going in and blocking their view. Is it better that those people burn in the back country, or not? This is going to be a major political issue going forward over the coming years, as we rebuild our region to deal with 21st century realities. As we do so, we need to hold open spaces for native plants.