Biotech vs Biology?

by Carolyn Chase


Sorrento Valley Road was originally built through the Penasquitos Lagoon and across Carmel Valley Creek around 1908 to accommodate horse traffic. The northern mile-long section, ending at Carmel Valley Rd., has always been a low-speed, winding two-lane road that would frequently experience flooding and traffic problems, even after being converted to a paved road. I-5 was built just east of the road in the 60s.

The last mile of SVR was closed more than four years ago to allow for the relocation of an important but problematically sited sewage pump station. Additional work on the intersection of SR-56 and I-5 kept the road closed. But when these projects were completed, the northern section was not reopened. No one is fessing up as to why Caltrans was not required to return the road to its open condition. Beginning in December 1999, extraordinary political pressures led the City to issue something called an "environmental exemption," to attempt to reopen the segment.

Environmentalists have heard of all manner of actions to get around environmental review and permitting in the City (alternative compliance, deviations, negative declarations), but this form of exemption is particularly insidious because it is an attempt to take action without any public or other agency review. Carmel Mountain Conservancy, a local non-profit, was compelled to counter with a lawsuit noting that rerouting and resurfacing a road next to an estuary in the Coastal Zone - and forming the eastern border of Torrey Pines State Reserve - does indeed merit environmental review not an "environmental exemption." The City appears to be backing off for now and is preparing an Environmental Impact Report.

Unidentified individuals under the name of "Citizens for Improved Sorrento Access, Inc." then sued the City to reopen the road. The contention of their lawsuit is that the road's in the Community Plan, the road's in the Coastal Plan, the road will relieve traffic, so open the road. Attempts to determine who the Citizens are have been unsuccessful. They have not disclosed their required officers with the State and their attorney has stated that "the Citizen's are media shy."

Among other things, the Conservancy makes the point that reopening the road would not be routine, that at a minimum it would "cost the taxpayers $641,000 to do the 'interim minimum improvements' and that conditions have greatly changed since the road's closure.

What has been happening to traffic for the last four years? New, fully-improved multi-lane roads have been opened that provide alternatives that take less time than when Sorrento Valley Rd. - backed up during commute hours - was last open.

In the meantime, wildlife, bicycle and pedestrian uses along this section have flourished. Recent Reserve studies have shown that the amount of construction around Sorrento Valley has increased such that the wildlife corridor under I-5 is now the only entry point used by larger mammals to enter and exit the Reserve. These mammals include deer, fox, coyote, bobcat and spotted skunk. The re-opening of Sorrento Valley Road would now be detrimental to the present condition of Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Furthermore, this section of road, even if it were reopened, is slated for closure yet again for the 5/805 widening project. Following that project, new north and south entries onto 5/805 and Carmel Mountain Rd will be installed right at the south end of where the road is closed. Those who want to reopen SVR right away are essentially asking the taxpayers to make an investment that not only destroys a valuable natural asset, but would be almost immediately re-closed for a project that would then provide massive additional capacity into and out of Sorrento Valley.

Some local biotech leaders working in Sorrento Vally have begun to take notice, Eight business owners in SV signed a letter to the City and to Biocom, (a biotech trade group that is on the record supporting reopening):

"We, as business owners, believe that the health of Torrey Pines State Reserve is an important asset to our businesses for several reasons. These include the ability to recruit people to work near a nationally recognized Reserve, the ability for employees to enjoy peaceful moments, even during their workday, and a bike lane that now exists for people to get some exercise on their way to work. It is our opinion that the loss of the wildlife corridor will negatively impact the plants and animals in the reserve, thereby greatly decreasing the value of this precious resource."

Doug Lappi, President/Senior Scientist Advanced Targeting Systems, Inc. and member of Biocom, took it a step further and wrote to Biocom requesting them to reconsider their support for reopening of SVR, noting,

"Biocom is an important organization that provides great help to the biotech community. I am an enthusiastic supporter. I would like to call your attention to a Biocom public policy plank that no longer is appropriate for Biocom: the re-opening of Sorrento Valley Rd between Carmel Valley Road and Carmel Mountain Road. The situation has changed and I would like to request that this issue be dropped.

"Torrey Pines State Reserve is a national treasure. For instance, if you read an article in the travel section of the New York Times on what to do in San Diego--you will find the Reserve always receives prominent attention. It is a major element in the beauty of San Diego that makes recruitment of talented individuals to the area easier and at reasonable costs. It is clear with the real traffic problems that exist, San Diego is having some difficulty in the differentiation from higher-salaried areas such as Los Angeles. Second, the Reserve is actually used by employees in Sorrento Valley as a place to visit during or after the work day. Detriment to the Reserve deteriorates the quality-of-life of employees of the biotech industry. Third, the section of Sorrento Valley Road is now open to pedestrians and bicyclists. The latter use the road as a means to work (relieving traffic, of course), but if the road were re-opened to automobiles, the road would be dangerous for bicyclists, and would probably be unused by them. Fourth, this is a simple biology issue, and it is inappropriate that a group such as Biocom, that is so heavily populated by biologists, would come down on the side that has poorly understood the biology."

Road proponents also poorly understand the priorities of the community as well. The Torrey Pines Community Planning Group voted 8-2 to support permanent closure of the road to motorized uses. This political flashpoint has led to a major demarcation in the Mayor's race. While Judge Dick Murphy also supports the closure, Supervisor Ron Roberts was unwilling to make a commitment.

This section of SVR is being reclaimed by nature and other non-polluting commuters. Taxpayers will win too by keeping it closed. Drivers already have viable alternatives and will have many more in short order when the merge expansion is completed. San Diego faces increasing conflicts over growth. As Dr. Lappi and others have noted, the future of our hi-tech economy is more and more dependent upon resolving those conflicts on the side of nature and quality of life.