Back of the Bus

 Local Control - not! Science - not!

by Carolyn Chase

  nce upon a time, the Multiple Species Conservation Plan was about "gaining back" control of local land use. The plight of endangered plants and animals in San Diego County finally hit a threshold where they could not be ignored - when developers started having trouble getting permits for their projects.

San Diego County happens to have the highest number of threatened and endangered species of any county in the United States. We have the dubious honor of being labeled a "hot spot" for biodiversity loss in Science magazine. Why? Species become endangered when they no longer have a place to live or sufficient area to forage for food or raise their young. San Diego County is at a point in our regional population growth where there is still some land left for the local critters, but it's disappearing fast under subdivisions. Hence, there are a bunch of plants and animals that aren't going to make it unless some major changes take place.

Developers, environmentalists, and local, state and federal bureaucrats were marshaled to the table. Developers and politicians trumpeted the need to take control over local resources because locals better understand the territory and have to live with the results. "It's our land, let us figure out how to save endangered species. We'll build a preserve big enough and connected enough to save the little guys. We believe in science and we'll do a good job." Fair enough. Nice idea. Lots of potential. Lots of work. Lots of trust required.

Much of this trust unraveled last week when the mayor led the move to reduce local protections for wetlands outside the MSCP, in the name of the MSCP preserve. Despite the fact that nationally renowned wetlands biologist Dr. Joy Zedler, Director of the Pacific Estuarine Research Laboratory of San Diego State University stated that "we have a wetland crisis in this state and in the City of San Diego," the city is moving to allow developers to continue to destroy the few remaining natural wetlands in the name of saving them.

Developers are seeking the right to build in wetlands and then mitigate the damage by attempting to enhance or restore other sites. In exchange for the permission to destroy a wetland, developers agree to mitigate this loss by enhancing or restoring acreage somewhere else. Again, it's a nice idea. The problem is that current science demonstrates that wetland replacement projects are unable to replace either the habitat or the complex functions of natural wetlands.

This is why there is a debate about mitigation ratios. The idea behind mitigating with more area than was impacted is to make up with quantity what is lost in quality. If one type of land could just be swapped for another, then you'd think an acre for more-than-an-acre would be a good deal. But plots of lands simply can't be turned into functioning wetlands. As in all things real estate related, location is everything.

But at the behest of Mayor Golding, San Diego arbitrarily reduced local mitigation standards to be consistent with weaker federal standards and rejected the proposal that stronger, scientifically-based local standards should be applied. They also axed the language that limited allowed uses in wetlands and opened the door to recent developer proposals to allow "homes, building and other structures."All of a sudden, local control and science were not important. Developers found common ground with Republican council members in a close 5-4 vote.

It finally boiled down to keeping the Mayor's deal with the developers. She touted a consensus that traded away science and locally based protections by repeating "this was part of the MSCP. The MSCP Working Group agreed to this, so we can't go back on it now. We can't begin to unravel it." But the Council had already voted just three weeks ago to make changes.

At the same time, Juan Vargas rightly pointed out that the wetlands issues had been explicitly deferred for consideration by the Wetlands Working Group and that no action was taken as part of the MSCP to reduce protections for remaining wetlands outside the preserve. Another troubling thing is that environmentalists involved in the negotiations denied that such a consensus was ever agreed to and all appeared before the Council to stand up for science and local control. Since the federal and state endangered species standards were higher, the developers lobbied for local control. But when local wetlands protections standards were higher, they changed their tune and moved to defer to the feds.

A telling moment of illumination came in response to Council member Valerie Stallings question to staff: "Why are we being told that changing the mitigation ratio from 3 to 1 to 2 to 1 is not a decrease? Why, if the City's Resource Protection Ordinance required 3 to 1 mitigation, was the Council being told that projects were only mitigating 2 to 1?" Turns out the City has been deferring to weaker federal regulations all along. The City's RPO mitigation standards are only "guidelines" and projects were able to get through using what was called "alternative compliance."

To environmentalists, this doesn't sound like much of an alternative at all: just the same old game of developers finding ways to get what they want and circumventing the intent of environmental laws. In the new code, they're going to call it a deviation. It all boils down to creating ways for developers to build in wetlands. The science and the public good are still at the back of the bus.

Now the "game" will move to the Mayor's Wetlands Working Group where developers are seeking a streamlined regional permit from under the Clean Water Act to allow them to continue to build in wetlands. Wetlands Working Group meetings are being held monthly and are open to the public.