December 16, 2001

The Ross Retort

A Path Well Traveled Should Be Saved
It was a habitat restoration experiment no one thought would work, a throwaway area south of SR56 that today retains its ignominious bureaucratic acronym CVRP as its name, largely because nobody thought enough of the idea of re-vegetating a seriously degraded creek bed to give the place a real name.

But, ten years later, CVRP (Carmel Valley Restoration and Enhancement Project) is an overgrown success-a thriving habitat along a revitalized Carmel Valley Creek, supporting an abundance of threatened and otherwise species, including folks who like to run, bike, ride horses or push baby strollers in quasi-natural bliss.

Besides being the longest linear (completely unofficial) off-leash dog park in these parts, CVRP is an unusual natural recreational setting in spite of the omnipresent SR56 just to the north.

But, if plans under development by several property owners revving to build on their land along the path get city approval, this natural refuge could go the way of the neighborhood across the freeway, transforming a rural memory lane into a roadway lined with apartment, office and institutional buildings, leaving only a future Clews Horse Ranch at its eastern end as a remnant of days past.

The original Carmel Valley Community Plan contemplated that the entire valley area around the old Carmel Valley Creek would remain an open space park, not simply to provide a recreational area for residents, but because the creek is one of two watersheds relentlessly dripping increasing amounts of urban run-off into Los Penasquitos Lagoon. The area also serves as a vital wildlife corridor connecting Torrey Pines State Park, Los Penasquitos Canyon, Carmel Mountain and the lagoon.

That was why Caltrans had to painstakingly plant riparian habitat, plant by plant, in the polluted and arid Carmel Valley Creek bed, following charts and diagrams hardly anyone understood to recreate something only hypothesized by endangered habitat nuts, as a costly mitigation project for the destruction of real habitat by SR56. Strangely enough, it worked.

While the builders of Palacio Del Mar successfully did in the idea of preserving the creek side valley as open space east of Carmel Country Road, the city's recently established habitat plan has served to protect the most important wildlife corridors within Carmel Valley, including lands along the CVRP path west of Carmel Country Road.

But, threats to the area continue in spite of the city's restrictions on building in wildlife corridors. Under the city's Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) which defines habitat sensitive lands that must be preserved, property owners still retain rights to develop 25% of their land lying within MSCP boundaries. And naturally, most property owners work overtime to push the envelope.

The west end of the CVRP area was saved at the midnight hour from a dense-pack development containing over a hundred single-family homes when the San Diego Jewish Academy bought the property a few years ago.

The Academy project, praised as a model of cooperative planning, resulted from lots of hard work with the Carmel Valley Planning Board and environmentalists to build a project that protected CVRP, the surrounding bluffs and habitat sensitive areas. Few could complain about the result-so far.

But, the Academy owns several acres on their west side and already has expansion plans for a gymnasium and playing fields. Hopefully, the project designers once again will worry about aesthetic impacts to this treasured and highly sensitive area as well as legal restrictions on habitat encroachment.

Of far more concern are the properties east of the Academy. A citywide housing and office space shortage turned formerly open space loving city planners into urbanizing density dealers. And developers know how to use the new code words to send city Planning Commissioners into joyous spasms-phrases like "mixed use retail," "neighborhood serving commercial," "affordable living units," on and on.

Likely, property owners will try to strike a deal with the city to mitigate for any protected land they build on beyond their 25% allotment in order to increase density by buying property of equal habitat value elsewhere in the city. These kinds of trade-off's are acceptable under MSCP rules, and this is indeed one way a city with no money to buy land can acquire important open space and encourage density at the same time.

But, from the vantage point of the communities surrounding CVRP, there is no equivalent land anywhere in San Diego. As one Carmel Valley Planning Board member put it, "if there is property elsewhere that comes close to the value of this area for people and wildlife, that land should already be protected."

Only locals who love the path along CVRP can make the case to city officials and planners. So, to our three area planning boards, how about giving CVRP a proper name and a permanent place in the community before it is lost. I will forward all suggestions.

Lisa Ross can be reached at www.lisaross.com.