Resource Protection Ordinance:
down but not out

New workshop scheduled to evaluate protections

by Alice Martinez
he next round in the struggle to save and improve the County's Resource Protection Ordinance (RPO) will be a Planning Commission Workshop on Friday, March 22 beginning at 9AM at the Department of Planning and Land Use Hearing Room, 5201 Ruffin Rd. Another meeting will be scheduled for March 29th should additional time be required.
The focus of this workshop will be to discuss the proposed changes to the RPO in a number of areas and compare them to regulations in state and federal jurisdictions.

Down memory lane

In the late 1980s, the County of San Diego was faced with rampant mass grading of hillsides and ridges, loss of wildlife habitat and deteriorating community character. In 1988, in an effort to avert the passing of a ballot measure that would have severely curtailed development, the County Board of Supervisors took a pro-active role. The Board invited citizen group members and building industry representatives to help put together regulations that provided a balance between economic development and resource protection. The committee met over several months to put together a compromise proposal. At the time it was supported by both environmental and building industry interests.
This proposal became the Resource Protection Ordinance (RPO) on May 31, 1989. RPO applies only to discretionary land use permits, such as tentative subdivision maps and major use permits. Exemptions are provided in RPO for several different types of projects and uses including: certain essential public facility projects, certain sand, gravel or mineral extraction projects, projects where imposition of RPO would result in a "taking" of a property, and continuation of pre-existing agricultural uses.
In effect, the RPO has created a level playing field for landowners, and a stable reference point for elected officials, by laying out protection against development on wetlands, floodplains, steep slopes, sensitive biological habitats and historic and prehistoric sites.

Horning in

But last November, County Supervisor Horn moved to repeal, break up and otherwise weaken and reduce the RPO. The proposed changes resulted in a 100-page staff technical report. At meetings in January of this year, the Board voted to continue the matter for further public review and analysis by staff, planning and sponsor groups, the Planning Commission and the public.

Streamlined or steamrollered?

The Endangered Habitats League (EHL), a citizen's non-profit group that is helping to evaluate the changes, has issued a report, Streamlined RPO, that recommends ways to accomplish RPO's important goals while increasing efficiency and eliminating unnecessary regulatory burdens on business.
Dan Silver, EHL representative, served on a special industry and citizen's committee appointed by the board to evaluate options for improving RPO. "There is a wide diversity of views on the committee, and consensus has not been achieved on some policy issues. However, committee members were able to work together successfully on many improvements," said Silver. "Streamlined RPO sets forth a constructive middle ground between those who insist on no change and those who want major weakening. It also differs from the recommendations coming from staff in very significant ways."

Cut to the Chase

Carolyn Chase, a local environmental activist concerned with quality-of-life issues, has a different take on the process. "It's not too hard to figure out what's coming down. It's right there in the 'Conclusion' in the staff report: 'If all of the above staff recommendations are eventually implemented RPO would be completely rescinded.' And it will cost the taxpayers at least $180,000 just to evaluate the changes. My question is, What's the hurry? And where is the mainstream, public support for these changes?
"Also according to the staff report, 'Definitions and regulations within RPO regarding floodplains and wetlands generally have not been problems, nor has the concept that prehistoric and historic sites of extraordinary significance should be preserved.'"
Why are the proposed floodplain changes some of the most extensive? Why should the county spend money to do Environmental Impact Reports to evaluate changes to wetlands and historic resources, changes that aren't needed in the first place? Why was a report issued claiming that significant portions of the proposed changes do not need an Environmental Impact Report? This so-called "Negative Declaration" has environmentalists looking forward to eventually winning another moral and legal challenge against the County ­p; the kind of challenge they have fought for and won before.
The RPO protects: steep slopes, floodplains, floodways; sensitive habitat lands, wetlands and wetlands buffers, and significant prehistoric or historic sites. Don't we still need to protect these things? Don't we still wish to allow for well-designed and appropriate developments in a consistent manner? Don't we still want to leave a legacy of open-spaces and natural places for future generations?
"Elimination of study requirements, elimination of fee requirements, elimination of criminal provisions, deletion of floodplain regulations, changes that result in increased 'cut and fill,' increased concrete and riprapped river allowances, new variances and exceptions.... There is page after page to digest and compare. It's such glamorous work, trying to protect our environment," Chase joked. "Well, parts of it. There are only parts of it left you know."
To receive a copy of Streamlined RPO or help with efforts to defend our region's natural heritage, send a self-addressed-stamped envelope to Earth Media, P.O. Box 99179, San Diego CA 92169, or send email to: Send contributions to: Endangered Habitats League, c/o San Diego Earth Day, P.O. Box 9827, San Diego CA 92169.

Alice Martinez is an ET staff reporter, San Diego Earth Day volunteer and computer system specialist.