The devil is in the details

As the Multiple Species Conservation Program plan rolls toward acceptance, many in the environmental community are expressing serious doubts.

by Carolyn Chase

ixty conservation activists, scientists and community members gathered together at the Buena Vista Audubon's Nature Center next to Buena Vista Lagoon in Carlsbad on January 25th. They were there to discuss the status of regional multiple species conservation planning efforts and specifically the "Multiple Species Conservation Plan" (MSCP Plan).

The MSCP outlines conservation standards for most of the 900 square miles in the southernmost portion of the County. For the past five years, negotiations between federal, state and local agencies and jurisdictions, building industry representatives and environmentalists have labored to birth this new approach to endangered species management. This new "habitat-based" approach purports to protect 87 species of plants and animals by designing a process which they hope will lead to the creation a connected preserve system over the course of 30 years. The plan has received wide attention as a possible model for habitat planning in other parts of the nation.

A salvation or a sellout?

The details of the MSCP are complex and over-arching. The plan seeks to achieve a compromise between parties with widely disparate interests. It's no surprise that few endorse the plan without reservations. The key question for the environmental community is: is the plan an acceptable compromise? To this end, the meeting addressed such questions as: What has been your experience with the MSCP? How does it relate to "conservation on-the-ground?" Will it really protect endangered species? Will it really protect the species that it says it does? How does the plan need to change to earn our support?

It was clear from the meeting that many responsible groups and individuals have serious doubts about the plan.

Also contributing to worries about the MSCP is the city's major companion piece, the so-called "Zoning Code Update" (see "Streamlining or Steam-rolling?" SDET 1/97). The Update is a multi-hundred-page modification and consolidation of all of the City's Land Development Regulations. It also represents the ordinances and guidelines that would be used to implement and enforce the MSCP.

The draft Environmental Impact Report for the Update makes it abundantly clear that the city is planning a wide variety of significant changes that have had only narrow public involvement up to this point. But as the details keep emerging, more people are getting concerned about the trade-offs and are asking, "what kind of future are we planning here in San Diego?"

Thumbs down

At least two groups have decided to oppose the MSCP at this point in its evolution. The Boards of Directors of both of the San Diego California Native Plant Society and the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve have recently voted to oppose the plan based on a specific list of problems.

The California Native Plant Society has a specific list of 17 issues which has led them to take a principled stand against the MSCP. According to Bertha McKinley, speaking for the society, "Our focus on the science has led our Board to determine they would not want their name being circulated in association with the plan at this time."

While falling short of rejecting the plan, the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board expressed these reservations:

"It appears that the MSCP proposes that land within this "preserve" will be protected and that all other open space will be open to development."

"The MSCP will not receive public support if it becomes a trade-off that allows development in or reduces protection of all open space outside the preserve."

"The area to the north of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve known as Del Mar Mesa encompasses one of the few remaining intact natural open space areas in coastal San Diego which contains resources such as salt marsh, coastal sage scrub, and southern maritime chaparral which provide habitat for many rare species. Yet development is shown on most of this area...."

"It is questionable if future development proposals will be reviewable by communities on their own merits."

On the fence

Other groups, including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Endangered Habitats League, are still considering their options.

According to Endangered Habitats League Director Dan Silver, "At this point, the League is not in support of the plan but is working hard to resolve the problems." Michael Beck of the League adds, "If this program is adopted it's going to be a hell of an experiment. This is our chance to take the hardest look to elevate the conservation of the program."

The Sierra Club has identified a number of areas where there are necessary improvements to the Plan including:

According to Adams, "There are parts of this plan that are terrible, and there is reason to believe that we are actually losing mitigation in exchange for gaining some potential connectivity. There is no question that many protections outside of the preserve are proposed to be lost."

The Pardee line

Many community members are especially upset about what they consider to be the unethical move to slip into the MSCP the San Diego City Manager's development plan for Pardee property located on the top of Carmel Mountain - the so-called Neighborhood 8A.

On October 31, 1995, the City Council, in a packed hearing, voted to continue the adoption of this plan and pursue another solution with all the parties. The Planning Commission unanimously stated, "the biological resources should dictate the preserve boundary ... the development proposal should not determine the preserve boundary within Neighborhood 8A."

Somehow, since then, a map for this same plan has appeared as part of the MSCP.

The people putting the MSCP Plan together seem to feel that the city's recent $9 million acquisition of steep bluff property on the northern side of the mesa should have the conservation community flushed with victory and not asking for more. But according to biologist Isabelle Kay, "The area will suffer from massive edge effects if they allow several hundred homes along the current island of habitat. It is entirely likely that you would end up with a situation where you have nothing but the limited amount of plant life that could survive after the animal life has been lost."

What's next?

As of this writing, the MSCP was going to be heard before the City Planning Commission in late January. The critical hearings to follow will be held before the City Council. Public support will be needed if the Plan is to be improved.

To find out the date for the City Council hearing, please call the 24-hour MSCP information line at (619) 570-1099. To be added to the San Diego Conservation email or fax list that sends out regular updates on matters of importance to the quality of life and future development of San Diego, call the voicemail for Californians for Quality of Life at (619) 496-3361.

Meet others helping to make a difference in this town and learn how you can help. Come to a party for the citizen's political action committee: Californians for Quality of Life. $5 for members, $10 non-members. Includes some food and drink. Questions or RSVP: C-QUAL voicemail at 496-3302. Party will be February 18, 6:30-8:30pm at Callahan's in the Mira Mesa Mall, NW corner of Camino Ruiz and Mira Mesa Blvd.