By Nadin Abbott and Miriam Raftery
June 27, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) – San Diego Supervisors heard heated testimony on Wednesday regarding plans to change densities for lands on private property within the Cleveland National Forest boundaries. The Forest Conservation Initiative (FCI) passed by voters in 1993, which limited development on these lands to one home for each 40 acres, expired in 2010. The County has rejected calls to enact the FCI protections into law. Instead, Supervisors directed staff to create an Environmental Impact Report based on staff recommendations that would increase densities in some areas and reduce them in others.
The hot potato is Alpine, where the Alpine Planning Group’s majority called on Supervisors to allow increased densities and development that could double the size of their rural town. That has drawn opposition from environmentalists, board member Lou Russo, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service itself, which raised concerns over fire dangers and preservation of federally protected wild lands adjacent to proposed development.
In the end, Supervisor Dianne Jacob asked for a special study of the Alpine area. By a 3 to 1 vote, Supervisors also asked staff to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The dissenting vote, Supervisor Dave Roberts, wanted to see protections of the FCI adopted to reflect the will of the voters; he voiced fears over a court battle and said this vote could be a costly mistake. Supervisor Ron Roberts was absent, while Supervisors Bill Horn, Greg Cox, and Jacob voted in favor.
The move follows several years of efforts by the Supervisors, community planning groups, county planners and staff to create new guiding documents for the forest lands for adoption into the General Plan.
Planning Commissioner Adam Day said the Alpine lands account for about 5% of the forest areas under consideration and that the proposed revision to the General Plan would accommodate “modest growth. “ He added that staff was ready to prepare the EIR if directed by Supervisors. At the end of a four-hour hearing, the Supervisors did just that. Staff is expected to bring the EIR back to the Board this winter, when more public comment will be taken.
As the hearing commenced, Duncan McFetridge, leader of Save Our Forests and Ranch Lands (SOFAR), told Supervisors that when the FCI was passed, “What the people of San Diego County…recommended was that the forest be protected by indivisible forest-wide zoning outside the country towns. Urbanization is inconsistent with open space living,” he said. All three of San Diego’s rivers have their heads in Cleveland National Forest, so the plan before Supervisors amounts to an attack on the watershed, he added.
McFetridge added that the plan has worked for 20 years to keep urbanization along the coast. He closed by telling Supervisors that what’s needed is what’s missing from the proposal: “for the sake of the people you represent, to analyze the forest Initiative as one of the alternatives.” But Supervisors rejected that request, with only Supervisor Dave Roberts speaking repeatedly and eloquently in favor of having the County’s new General Plan conform to the Forest Conservation Initiative that voters previously approved.
Sarah Kent reminded everyone that the other Supervisors still on the board today were for the Forest Conservative Initiative back in 1993, when it won voters’ approval. She asked them to consider that sprawl is linked to climate change, since it leads to more traffic and cars spewing greenhouse gases. “We need the same kind of leadership now,” she said, that Supervisors showed back then to protect our rural areas.
Next came presentations on various specific geographic areas as part of the plan, with recommendations by staff, community planning groups and the Planning Commission. In most cases, the staff proposals were actually more conservative, allowing less development, than the planning groups or commissioners. For instance, in the Cuyamaca area, staff recommended allowing the number of parcels to rise from 57 to 61, while the Planning Commission was willing to allow 76 parcels, allowing subdivision to add 19 more parcels for development than are currently allowed.
As for Alpine, the main points of contention focused on the eastern boundaries. Travis Lyon represented the community planning group. He said Alpine is at a crossroads and needs growth to bring in municipal services such as improved roads and a new high school sought by residents. The Alpine-Mountain Empire Chamber of Commerce and the East County Chamber of Commerce also supported the Alpine Planning Group’s plan which would lead to significantly higher densities.
But Jack Shu, co-chair of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, said bluntly, “We do not need Alpine to double or triple in size.” He called Alpine a rural town that does not need to grow further. “We do not need any of this commercial development,” he added, further voice concerns over proposals by staff, the planning commissioners and the community planners.
Viejas sent representatives who reminded Supervisors that over the last three years, they have held multiple meetings with community groups and talked to people on both sides of Willows Road, where the tribe has been granted designation as light industrial, even though as a sovereign nation the tribe has no legal obligation to do so. Viejas Vice Chairman Cita-Welch told supervisors that the planning community’s proposal for mixed rural and light industrial zoning in this area has broad support, adding, “This will meet future growth needs, working with the semi-rural nature of East County.” The tribe owns 40 acres that fall under that planning grid, he added in response to a question from Supervisor Jacob, who thanked the tribe for being good neighbors.
A group of residents presented a signed letter asking that the east Willows area remain residential, citing concerns that the Walker property, which houses a clinic, has been eyed by a tribe outside our region for a possible off-reservation casino. Plans vary from 1,150 homes to staff’s lower 1,081 residences and would keep the east side of Willows as light industrial.
Testimony by the United States Forest Service, which owns Cleveland National Forest, raised serious issues.
William Metz, Supervisor of Cleveland National Forest, expressed worries about the changes proposed around Alpine and echoed the CNF Foundation’s worries about the community doubling or more in size.
“The Cleveland National Forest lands in this area are heavy with fuel ladings that makes them particularly hazardous from a fire suppression standpoint,” Metz told supervisors. He added that the Pine Creek wilderness due east of Alpine could have its character negatively impacted by the development proposed and that groundwater withdrawal by these projects could negatively affect water resources for the National Forest.
U.S. Forest Service Fire Chief Carlton Joseph voiced strong concerns that the new development proposed in the urban-rural interface areas of Alpine would increase fire suppression costs, decrease availability of water, and increase the risk to isolated structures in the area.
The Forest Service asked that the county staff’s recommendations to preserve the 40-acre minimum lot size around Alpine be adopted, though the Forest Service did not support all of the staff’s recommendations for the future of private properties on Forest lands countywide.