News of the week
A judge strikes down a large housing development in San Diego County
This past week a judges struck down an approval for a large housing development south of where I live in San Diego County.
The proposed development, called Adara at Otay Ranch, was approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in 2019. The project had gone through several revisions, with the final draft envisioning the construction of 1,119 houses, commercial property, and an elementary school, all to be plopped in the middle of a portion of the County that has remained undeveloped amid urban sprawl.
The ruling concluded a lawsuit that was brought by a coalition of environmental groups that included the California Chaparral Institute, California Native Plant Society (CNPS), the Center for Biological Diversity, Endangered Habitat League, the Sierra Club, and was joined by the California Attorney General’s office, whose interest in the case was wildfire.
San Diego County Superior Court Judge Richard S. Whitney struck down the approval over a number of grounds in the the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a document that is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Signed into law by governor Ronald Reagan in 1970, CEQA requires an EIR for projects with potential significant environmental ramifications. The environmental effects must be identified and addressed; and measures must be commenced to offset the environmental effects of the project. The judge’s ruling contained the following faults found with the EIR:
The EIR had inconsistencies with San Diego County’s Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP). Set into County and municipal law, the MSCP is a deal worked out in recent decades among conservationists, biologists, and smart growth folks on one side, and developers and financial institutions on the other. The deal essentially comes down to this: developers can get fast tracked on environmental reviews in exchange for keeping their hands off designated habitat and open spaces in the County. Judge Whitney’s ruling gets into the nitty gritty of which parcels of land are allowed to be developed, but he summarizes that the development “conflicts with the face of the MSCP.”
The EIR did not adequately address the problem of wildfire. Judge Whitney quotes the EIR as stating that the "introduction of up to 1,119 new homes would not increase the potential likelihood of arson, off-road vehicle-related fires, or shooting-related fires." That there would be no increase in fire risk from the development is fantasyland. The project was planned to be in the middle of chaparral and coastal sage scrub. Any time you increase the boundary of the chaparral/urban interface, there is more chance of people setting fire to the land. And the more interface between brush and houses, the more likely houses are going to experience wildfire.
Along with the MSCP, the development would have plowed over land that is habitat for the Quino checkerspot, a highly endangered butterfly whose range is now restricted to patches within San Diego County. The butterfly had been observed in the area for the development, but the EIR "dismisses these sightings as incidental,” accord to the ruling.
The judge also found that the project’s EIR fudged the numbers when it comes to assessing the amount of greenhouse gases that the project would generate, and that the project did not provide for affordable housing.
Asked for comment, San Diego Chapter CNPS Conservation Chair Frank Landis said, “The ruling is great. Since three of those parcels were supposed to be preserved as public lands, I hope we can get them into public ownership sooner, rather than later. That part of Proctor Valley is problematic for any development, but it’s a necessary wildlife corridor. Let’s keep it wild.”
The court ruling brings up the larger problem, a world-wide problem, of urban sprawl, which will be a subject of a future Substack. I’ll also be writing more about San Diego’s MSCP, as well as the Quino checkerspot and other rare and endangered species close to where I live.
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