The Struggle to Save the MSCP

San Diego Button Celery (Eryngium aristulatum var. parishii)

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

As is becoming normal for these columns, I’m writing it on a Friday in early May to meet a deadline. Then 4:30 comes around, County Planning sends out their email alert, and things change. Friday at 4:30 is when the County has taken to issuing their new EIRs, their announcements of meetings, and in this case, their announcements of schedule changes. Now I’m writing past deadline again, but this is important.

There were two portentous announcements this month. The first was that Otay Ranch Village 14 development project would be heard by the Board of Supervisors on May 22. This set the clock rolling for CNPS and every group that is planning on opposing it. Then on May 10 came the announcement that, no, it will now be heard on June 26. So now I get an opportunity to talk about the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) and how Village 14 and other issues threaten to break it.

A primer on the MSCP: the MSCP is a plan that’s been around since the 1990s, and to quote the County, it:

  • “Preserves San Diego's unique, native habitats and wildlife for future generations.

  • “Works across political boundaries in a unique regional conservation effort.

  • “Protects watersheds and water quality.

  • “Streamlines the permitting process for development projects.

  • “Ensures compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act, state Endangered Species Act, and state Natural Communities Conservation Planning [NCCP] Act.

    “The MSCP is important because it:

  • “Conserves San Diego's natural areas and quality of life.

  • “Protects San Diego's diversity of native plants and

    animals, including threatened and endangered species.

  • “Accommodates future growth by streamlining building regulations.”

The basic problem the MSCP was designed to solve is that the CEQA process in the 1980s wasn’t working very well, either for development or for conservation. In every development with something sensitive, part of the development had to be set aside for it, whether the habitat was good or not, whether there was a viable population or not. Then the agencies had to decide if this was good enough, and organizations like CNPS had to decide whether to fight or not. It was all very slow and contentious, and the result was a patchwork of little island preserves that generally were too small for the long- term survival of the species they were supposed to protect. You can see the remnants of this problem in the parks from that era. The idea behind the MSCP was to do some regional planning: Lands with many rare species and good habitat were identified, categorized as blocks of core habitat with wildlife corridors. These were designated as “Pre-Approved Mitigation Areas” (PAMA). Other areas that were not so good, but which had some sensitive resources, were also identified. These were also part of the MSCP. The idea was to direct development into the areas that were less important for conservation, while conserving the lands that were more important. Instead of setting aside the best of some mediocre land inside a development (for example) the developer would pay to conserve land inside the PAMA, helping to build a network of core habitats linked by wildlife corridors, all protected as parkland, ecological reserve, ecological preserve, or wildlife refuge. This grand compromise was to give both the conservation and development communities some assurance over which lands were to be built and which preserved. To further streamline development, the wildlife agencies gave the County (and cities) that adopted the MSCP “take permits,” which allowed them to permit developers to take sensitive resources on developments, provided those takes were mitigated inside the PAMA.

The MSCP was divided into three parts, the South County, which was created in the early 1990s, the North County, which is still in process, and the East County, where the idea has faced so much political opposition that it has not gotten far.

Before I dive into the problem with Village 14, I want to detour into Newland Sierra. The Newland land is a major core habitat area for the North County MSCP, and it has a couple of wildlife corridors linking to it. The Newland Sierra development would bisect the property, so any plant or animal moving through the wildlife corridor would have to cross numerous roads and backyards to get from wildland to wildland, before heading north through the undeveloped wildlife corridor that borders I-15. That’s one big reason whyCNPS is part of the litigation against Newland Sierra. The corridor it damages is one of only two big south-north wildlife corridors left in the County, and the other one goes through the privately held Rancho Guejito. Lose both of those to development, and plants and animals can’t migrate north todeal with climate change.

Otay Ranch Village 14 has similar problems, but it’s down in Proctor Valley near the border, so it’s part of the SouthCounty MSCP. Getting back to history, when the South County MSCP was being created, the wildlife agencies objected to part of the plan. Three parcels in Proctor Valley (PV-1, PV-2, and PV-3) were identified as critical wildlife corridor between two core habitat areas at Sweetwater Reservoir and Otay Mountain, but they were slated for development. So the developer, the agencies and the municipalities did a deal, whereby they would take some other parcels that were slated for the PAMA, and put development on there, and put the PV parcels into the PAMA in their stead. This deal was known as the “Baldwin Agreement,” after the owner of the parcels at the time. Theparcels that were traded for the PV parcels were then developed, and everyone assumed that, in the course of time, someone would use the PV parcels as a mitigation bank andthey would become parkland. They’re bordered by a CDFW ecological reserve and parts of the USFWS San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. While there was developable land outside the three parcels and parklands, they were so marginal that the thought was it would end up as parkland regardless.

Fast forward to the mid-2010s, with the County Supervisors tilting hard right, and new faces at County Planning, and the new owner of the PV Parcels decides to try to develop them. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but that’s the origin of Village 14. This time, the County is playing along, trying to provide legal justification for how they are overturning the Baldwin agreement by developing the PV parcels, while at the same time protecting the South County MSCP.

The wildlife agencies, last I heard, were having none of that, and have said that if the County approves Otay Ranch Village 14, it will be found out of compliance with the MSCP, which means it loses its take permit. Thereafter, any development inside MSCP lands has to go through the old, problematic 1980s CEQA process. This is more work for developers, more work for us and the other environmental groups because we’ll have to fight on more projects, and more work for the strapped wildlife agencies, who will have to review and approve everything. And development slows waaaay down during a mounting housing crisis.

Furthermore, if the South County MSCP falls apart, why should the wildlife agencies allow the County to work on a North County MSCP, let alone an East County MSCP. Work on these is decades behind schedule, and if the County won’t keep the deals it already made, why make more of them?

This is why we have to fight on Village 14, just as we did on Newland Sierra. It’s not just about those developments, it’sabout the preservation of wildlife corridors and big enough habitat areas through the MSCP. I want to make that really, really clear, because the ramifications of these two projects being built are far bigger than the projects themselves. Conservation is only as good as the governments, agencies, and organizations enforcing it, and if we stop advocating and working on it, conservation stops happening, and we lose what our predecessors tried to save.

CNPS-SD has, effectively, two budgets, one for operations and one for conservation legal expenses. This separation means that, while a corporation may sponsor work on native plant gardens, they can’t use that money to influence conservation decisions. As a result, conservation has to raise money separately, and we’re running low. Right now is a really good time to contribute money to the Legal Fund (via a check to our treasurer) because Village 14 is a fight we need to win.