Against the Odds

Working to save Carmel Mountain from development.

by Carolyn Chase

his month, the San Diego City Council will decide the fate of the last, largest piece of a kind of native habitat known as southern maritime chaparral. Nineteen different property owners want to continue the trend of putting houses over it. Environmental and community activists have been working on ways of saving it for almost a decade. What's the fuss about? What's really up on Carmel Mountain or as the City enchantingly calls it, Neighborhood 8A?

Carmel Mountain/Neighborhood 8A is the 390 acres of still undeveloped mesa top located due east of Torrey Pines State Park. You can view it to the east when you drive past Highway 5 and Carmel Valley Road.

It is the last remaining example of an undeveloped coastal mesa in this region, making it unique in the whole world. Nowhere else do climate, topography and biology interact to create this mosaic of habitats, supporting this group of species.

Here is how the biologists describe it - along with comments about development proposals and the impacts.

"very unique, rare, limited white sandstone soil type (and alluvium) on the ridge and its margins: supports the highest density/diversity of plant species on all of Carmel Mt."

More than half the ridge is gone in the planning commission proposal, most of the ridge is gone in others.

" ridge and its west, southwest, and south facing margins/slopes support a high concentration of narrow endemic plants, e.g., Del Mar sand aster (proposed for listing as an endangered species), Del Mar manzanita (listed as endangered), San Diego jewel flower, tom cat clover, Coulter's snapdragon, twining snapdragon, rein orchid, San Diego barrel cactus, coast wallflower, Nuttal's scrub oak, prostrate spineflower, sea-dahlia, south coast saltscale, wart-stemmed ceanothus, and western dichondra."

" the white sandstone alluvium on site is very limited in range and important recovery habitat for the Orcutt's spineflower"

Gone in all city proposals.
  " gnatcatchers in the valley northwest of the ridge and high quality coastal sage scrub at the top of the valley"
Gone under the planning commission proposal.

" Isolated seasonal wetlands and vernal pools on the ridge, typifying what makes Carmel Mt. so unique a diverse array of unique and limited habitat types that sustain a variety of species."

" supports several vernal pools, an extraordinarily depleted habitat in the region of which approximately 2-3 percent remain (and should be protected in situ) vernal pools on site contain the endangered San Diego fairy shrimp"

Gone in planning commission proposal
  " Vernal pools and rain pools on site also serve as 'watering holes' for a variety of species found on Carmel Mt. including deer, mammals, birds, and snakes"
Gone in planning commission proposal
  " ponded water on site also provides habitat for species such as the Western spadefoot toad and is indicative of the unique mosaic of habitats and species that Carmel Mt. supports."
Gone in planning commission proposal
  " the site contains a meadow which is important for foraging animals, and unique 'balds' that support San Diego barrel cactus and Ashy spike-moss."
Gone in all city proposals
  " large portions of the site support dense southern maritime chaparral and species such as coast white lilac, Del Mar sand aster, San Diego barrel cactus, and California adder's tongue fern areas of good quality coastal sage scrub on site support gnatcatchers."

Impacted by all city proposals

Southern maritime chaparral, which is found over the entire mountain, has been reduced to less than 10 percent of its former extent; all development footprints under consideration destroy this habitat to some extent.


Plan this


The 19 property owners want to finance housing on these properties. A proposal by the property owners calls for 1,280 homes on 212 acres, with 167 acres of open space.

The plan recommended by the San Diego city manager would allow 577 residences on 116 acres, 255 acres set aside as open space.

A plan from environmental groups would allow 521 homes on 93 acres. All of the impacts listed above are eliminated in this "Option 1.5, the Conservation Compromise Plan."

The City Council will be taking public testimony and making their decision this month.

Local volunteers are doing their soul searching:

"I came away with a gut feeling, especially after reviewing the Mayor/[councilmember] Mathis latest proposal on site, that it's still wrong. Sacrificing the south facing slopes of the one of the most unique land forms and habitat types left in San Diego is too much. I want to draw the line at Option 1.5/The Conservation Compromise Plan. Their counteroffer to pull a row of houses off the ridge and back from the valley north of the ridge and save the spine of much of the ridge was the opposite of what should have happened. I can live with our proposal to allow development to come up into this north valley if we protect the ridge and the south side valley down to the transverse canyon area, a la Option 1.5. We could give up an acre or two at the tip, but not much more.

"I take this position knowing full well the chances of losing is high and that losing the Subarea III deal and the 150 acres on top is a high risk and that a referendum would be a long shot and that Pardee would not be sitting idly by. No question, we would lose all good will at Council/Mayor, etc.

"Why take a stand then? Why not accept the best offer they put on the table?

"It's the last big piece of land worth a damn, biologically, without a plan on it.

"It's also one of the most biologically, geologically and topographically unique landforms left and I don't see it functioning as a unit. Much as we've all fought to keep them off the mesa top to preserve its integrity, the ridge they want to destroy captures the biological essence of Carmel Mountain what makes it unique.

"I feel like they've already taken one of my lungs and my right arm. Now they're asking which of my legs I want to sacrifice. I don't want to make that choice. I want to at least go out fighting for what's right on San Diego's last big land battle even against the odds."

All parties have made great strides in working out true conservation and fair development footprints for parcels in Neighborhood 8A. It would be a shame to have come so far only to falter over the last few acres. The City Council still has the chance to do the right thing and keep development off of the most sensitive areas.

As we have pleaded for years, we are asking the City to heed the work of biologists and combine that with fair and responsible development proposals. This unique and much needed combination will lead to an overall larger increase in wealth and quality of life for all involved. We still have the opportunity to for everyone to win if stay the course with the conservation compromise plan.

  Carolyn Chase is Chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, Chair of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks and the Earth Day Network. She can be reached at .