Resource protection under attack in San Diego

Resource protection is needed - now, more than ever. It's not the time to throw away the rule book - but that is exactly what the county supervisors are considering.

by Dan Silver

"San Diego is that place south of Southern California."

ou may have heard this line quoted by citizens proud of the way San Diego protects its communities and its natural heritage. If there is indeed a difference between San Diego and the monotonous sprawl of Orange and Riverside Counties, the major credit goes to a visionary ordinance enacted by the Board of Supervisors in 1989 called the Resource Protection Ordinance, or RPO.
In the late 1980s, when faced with rampant mass grading of hillsides and ridges, loss of wildlife habitat, and deteriorating community character, the Supervisors wisely recognized that a clear-cut set of rules laying out acceptable development standards was needed. They recognized that without hard-and-fast rules, known and understood by all parties in advance, the outcome would be endless variances and inappropriate development. Thus, instead of free-for-all attempts at political manipulation, the Resource Protection Ordinance has created a level playing field for landowners and a stable reference point for elected officials.
RPO has several components, each of which protects the community. Where there are steep slopes, it restricts disfiguring grading, so that aesthetic landforms continue to enhance property values. It ensures that the developer will provide mitigation for impacts where sensitive plants and animals exist. Where development in wetlands and floodplains would cause flood damage to properties downstream, such development is prohibited, and streams can't become concrete sewers like the "Los Angeles River."
Without RPO in place, exception after exception would be allowed. After a while, those exceptions would add up to irreversible damage to communities and to the very nature of the county.

Under attack

RPO is now under heavy assault by some members of the Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Bill Horn introduced a motion to totally eliminate RPO, and it was seconded by Supervisor Greg Cox. Supervisors Jacob, Slater, and Roberts - eventually joined by Cox - succeeded in slowing down this anti-community and anti-environmental freight train. The next showdown will come January 24th.
That is not to say that RPO cannot be improved consistent with the streamlining initiatives of Supervisors Jacob and Slater. For well over a year, a citizens committee has looked at RPO and evaluated options. Positive steps would include the elimination of redundant slope calculations, clarifying mitigation guidelines, reducing the paperwork needed for wetlands definitions, and the amendment of RPO so that it can more effectively build a comprehensive habitat protection system. That would be a sensible package with benefits to all parties.
The citizens committee is split between development and environmental interests, however, and consensus is unlikely. Thus, major policy decisions will appropriately be laid squarely at the feet of the Board, where development interests will call for more permissive slope criteria and for the elimination of ordinance-level protection. They will also ask for the deferral of habitat issues to exemption-ridden state law, and for abdication of local responsibility for wetlands protection.

Unhidden agenda

What is the real agenda behind the attack on RPO? It may be to open up San Diego's unincorporated area - meaning its scenic, rural backcountry - to more intensive development. Such a misguided strategy would not only lead to loss of economically productive farmland and tourist revenue, but permanently burden the taxpayer with subsidizing expensive infrastructure and human services for these outlying areas. New highways, water mains, and sewage treatment plants, as well as police, fire, and ambulance would be some of the costs to be borne.
Growth without the protections of RPO is unlikely to be "smart" growth - that is, growth which maintains quality of life. More sensible ways to meet future housing needs can be pursued and are indeed coming forward because of the RPO. The uniqueness of San Diego within the wall-to-wall sprawl of surrounding counties is hardly an accident, but rather the result of the well-established rules of RPO. If these are thrown to the wind by the Board of Supervisors, it will be a major step down the road to homogenization with Orange and Riverside Counties.
Elected officials need to hear support for continued resource protection. Contact your County Supervisors about protecting RPO. If you have any questions or would like to be placed on a list of concerned citizen volunteers working for resource protection, please call or write Carolyn at Earth Times, 272-0347.

Dan Silver is Coordinator for the Endangered Habitats League, an organization of Southern California conservation groups and individuals dedicated to ecosystem protection, improved land use planning, and collaborative conflict resolution.

Call to action - what you can do

he draft staff report on repealing RPO from the County Dept. of Planning & Land Use is recommending a 60-day continuance (from January 24) of the Board hearing so that Planning and Sponsor Groups and the Planning Commission can review it. The staff report is 40 pages long, and the Board's RPO subcommittee hasn't even come up with their own recommendations yet (they will do so sometime in January). But remember, the Board is not obligated to follow the recommendation to continue, and Supervisor Horn is quite capable, on January 24th, of making an immediate motion to repeal RPO. He has made that motion before, and Supervisor Cox has seconded it.
The Earth Times encourages everyone to support the staff's continuance recommendation. Please call - or even better, write - your supervisor and Chairperson Ron Roberts to say that not only do we support the continuance, we expect it. This is a critical issue to this county, and the public deserves adequate notice. There is a lot of material to review, some of which isn't even available yet.

Write to:
County Board of Supervisors
1600 Pacific Highway, S.D. 92101

Call your supervisor:

Dist. 1: Greg Cox 531-5511
Dist. 2: Diane Jacob 531-5522
Dist. 3: Pam Slater 531-5533
Dist. 4: Ron Roberts 531-5544
Dist. 5: Bill Horn 531-5555