A Tale of Two Developments

by Carolyn Chase


believe strongly that those of us promoting sustainable development have potential allies in developers. They stand to make more money from better designed, well-integrated, denser developments that provide a high quality of life. But if developers continue on their present course of urban sprawl and unworkable growth, they will face widespread public opposition, growing support for building moratoria, and no-growth ballot initiatives because of real degradation in our natural systems and quality of life.

One of my goals, and that of the Sierra Club, is to attempt to stem the cumulative destructive impacts of growth on our urban and natural systems before those systems either collapse or are irretrievably degraded.

These issues are coming into focus as the next financial cycle pushes another building boom.

Two different developers are currently requesting ballot endorsements from the San Diego Sierra Club Chapter on major subdivisions in the North City Future Urbanizing Area. They wish to use the Sierra Club name on the ballot endorsement and want us to help them campaign for the measures to pass muster with the voters.

The Pardee Construction Company wants to put in Pacific Highlands Ranch with a maximum potential of 5,456 units going in on 1,347 acres. Potomac Sports Properties wants our endorsement to move ahead with their Phase 2 of "Black Mountain Ranch." BMR Phase 1 and 2 will have up to 5,400 clustered units on 2,035 acres and will also have two golf courses and a hotel. Both include significant commercial space.

People are beginning to ask me why the Sierra Club would consider endorsing such growth. Why indeed? I am told almost every day that the reality of San Diego is that growth is going to go somewhere. The question has become: how can we help create better growth patterns?

Other reasonable questions include: How are these developments better from all those built in the past? Are they being done so that they will work? Are there sufficient assurances that it won't mean more gridlock? Will they pollute the air with noise and exhaust? How will water pollution be handled? Do they provide for functioning wildlife corridors?

When solutions are not forthcoming, people respond with efforts such as the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative, which is likely to be on the same ballot.

Ironically, or perhaps fatefully, the RHWI rezoning would redirect approximately the same amount of growth that the known combined buildouts in and around the "phase shift" areas will add (housing for about 100,000 people has been approved or is in the process of being approved via 17 different subdivisions proposed in and around the NCFUA).

With RHWI, we are saying that the growth should not go in most agriculturally-designated lands and growth should not go where there are currently no sewer or water services and it would be expensive to extend them.

With the projects requiring phase shifts, we would like to be able to say: this is where the growth should go. This is good growth for this area. We know that both these developers have the resources and the leadership to make it so.

Contrary to those who imbue environmentalists with mythic powers, lesson number one in the fight against Los Angelization is that you can't just stop developers. Developers have rights too. But just as important, if not more so, they have money and power and friends in all the right places. You can stop or improve some things, some times, but at enormous cost and risk. Urban sprawl continues. Environmentalists and community residents are outmanned and outgunned at every turn.

The Pardee deal has been carefully sweetened by their offer to contribute significant lands on Carmel Mountain, the last and largest remaining stand of an endangered habitat known as coastal maritime chaparral. With rare vernal pools full of endangered fairy shrimp, and many "narrow endemic" plants (species unique to one region), Carmel Mountain has more biodiversity per-square-foot than any other location in the county's coastal zone. This is a conservation jewel that Pardee has actively sought to develop for the last few years. Only dogged grass-roots community pressure, combined with the resolution of the Mayor's Office, have kept the mesa top from the roar of the bulldozers. Now, Pardee has offered to save their portions of Carmel Mountain if we are successful in convincing the voters to approve Pacific Highlands Ranch. It's a high stakes game of trade, with Pardee threatening to roll on Carmel Mountain if the Sierra Club doesn't climb on board by the June 25th Planning Commission Hearing.

Poor Black Mountain Ranch. Those folks, with nothing to trade for greenmail, are stuck with trying to do the right thing. So far, they have Pardee outclassed by a mile. While BMR was busy giving us what we asked for - a transit phasing plan and ways to obtain commitments to finance it - Pardee was busy defending their "suburban lite" plan.

Both of these plans have been through lengthy, painstaking processes to negotiate wildlife corridors and development footprints. Most local conservation groups have agreed to the proposed footprints. But the Sierra Club has maintained from the beginning - and both developers agreed - that a key goal of the planning efforts was to result in workable "transit oriented development." Unfortunately, according to the Environmental Impact Reports, both of these plans will have significant cumulative impacts on traffic, air, and water quality. At this point, the Pardee plan does not contain sufficient assurances for phasing and funding of adequate transit services.

In a Pardee-consultant ultimatum letter sent to the Sierra Club last week demanding our endorsement, they claim their plan will achieve a "community that is more transit-ready than any new community in San Diego County." We beg to differ.

Two hours prior to receiving the Pardee demand letter via FAX, Sierra Club representatives were personally presented with a phased transit plan for BMR. The plan clearly identified the kinds of partnership commitments needed from the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, the North County Transit District, and SANDAG. They also proposed $1 million in funding for the first phase of transit service, which includes van purchases.

BMR understands the return on investment from providing a high quality of life and taking the next steps to be a part of the solution. They understand that the things we are asking for are not trivial and not part of some political game of mutual posturing. They know that by actually taking our input seriously we will all have a project that is good enough to convince the voters it will work - because it was designed and funded to work.

We also know this for certain: if we don't draw the line, the powers-that-be will not stop our systems from becoming gridlocked, nor will they stop urban sprawl. This is the lesson number two of Los Angelization: roads plus growth equals gridlock and endangered species. The existing governmental systems will allow growth to pave the remaining parts of our natural paradise and turn our freeways into virtual parking lots unless we require otherwise.

Pardee and other developers claim to be paying enormous sums for transportation infrastructure. But when you look at the fine print, what they refer to as enormous sums are usually right-of-way easements, roadwork, and pavement that would be required for any development. It's just enough to dump the additional traffic onto the so-called regional system; in the case of North City developments, onto the already clogged I-5 and I-15.

Developers also say: we will only do the access roads because the freeways are regional obligations and that's someone else's problem. Problem is, we've seen how these regional systems are managed and we refuse to support a plan that adds growth to an already overburdened system without a means to handle it. This approach has led to the unacceptable traffic conditions that we have now.

But Pardee's mindset is to continue on their present course as long as they can. That is a basic status quo strategy - keep doing what you're doing and only change when you are absolutely required to do so. We applaud the progress we've made up to this point, but the time has come for both these projects to take the next steps.

The Black Mountain Ranch folks seem to "get it." The voters are not going to go for gridlock. The political reality is that these plans will only succeed with the voters if we can answer the hard questions as to how the plans will work and how they will be funded. I need to be able to answer the question: why is the Sierra Club endorsing this growth? The answer needs to be: because it's good growth, damn good growth. And that answer needs to be true.