By Miriam Raftery
January 22, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) – Cleveland National Forest Foundation (CNF) and Save Our Forest and Ranchlands (SOFAR) filed a lawsuit against San Diego County last week in San Diego Superior Court. The suit argues that Supervisors adopted an amendment to the Forest Conservation Initiative (FCI) based on a faulty environmental analysis and failed to identity ways to minimize impacts of the new plan.
Those contentions are disputed by the County and some prominent East County residents.
The FCI was approved by over two-thirds of voters countywide in 1993 to protect Cleveland National Forest from piecemeal development. It set minimum lot sizes of 40 acres on privately owned properties within the forest and created boundaries for existing country towns in the forest to encourage “compact development,” according to a press release issued by the environmental groups CNF and SOFAR.
A sunset clause allowed the FCI to expire on December 31, 2010, including a requirement for voter approval of zoning changes within the protected area. Supervisors recently approved an amendment to the General Plan that allows much smaller parcels in some portions of the forest.
“The Forest Conservation Initiative is one of San Diego County’s most important planning success stories,” said Duncan McFetridge of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. “The Board of Supervisors should do everything it can to protect and strengthen the FCI; instead, it’s doing just the opposite.”
The groups’ press release contends, “Smaller parcels encourage development outside of existing town boundaries within the forest. San Diego County has already zoned sufficient land to support the development of tens of thousands of homes in the unincorporated parts of the county. Its own General Plan calls for consolidating development around existing country towns to reduce vehicle travel and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. The approved plan disregards those policies.”
But George Barnett, a member of the Alpine Community Planning Group, disputes that contention and notes that the county’s changes are consistent with the ACPG’s recommendations.
“It is very much the case…that in many instances the `old’ density in fact is more dense than the post-FCI proposals,” Barnett observes. In greatest dispute is an area of Alpine near the Viejas Casino along Interstate 8.
Barnett adds, “The adoption of the old values for purposes of moving the general update forward was formally voted on by the ACPG at a meeting that CNFF’s president Jack Shue attended.” He said Shue presented his views but was “figuratively tarred and feathered from the floor by the large public turnout. They voiced frustrations of having their private property rights trampled by opponents that don’t live there.”
But the lawsuit’s backers contend that there is more at stake than landowners’ rights.
“San Diego County continues to underestimate the threat of climate change by encouraging development in far-flung areas,” noted attorney Catherine Engberg of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, who represents CNFF in the case, along with Marco Gonzalez of Coast Law Group. “It’s unfortunate that yet another lawsuit had to be filed to force the county to comply with state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
In addition to concerns about climate change and disrupting forest habitat, the lawsuit claims there are flaws in the environmental analysis for the FCI amendment with regard to threats to water supplies, increased fire risk and harm to wildlife in the forest.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the county is required to consider alternatives that minimize environmental harm when it adopts a zoning change like the one included in the FCI amendment. The lawsuit argues that the environmental impact report used to justify the amendment was based on flawed assumptions that led to a faulty analysis.
The lawsuit also argues that the FCI amendment is inconsistent with county General Plan policies aimed at aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and flouts current court orders requiring the adoption of a robust and binding Climate Action Plan and related policies. The county is currently defending separate lawsuits brought by the Sierra Club and the Golden Door Spa challenging its failure to adopt and implement a legally adequate Climate Action Plan.
Barring a judicial action to halt the County’s General Plan update, the update is expected to take another 18 months to be implemented, Barnett told ECM.