A new threat to the habitat peace

ROSS is a writer and member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board.

07-Sep-1995 Thursday

In case no one noticed, over the past few years, peace broke out all over
San Diego under a flag with four letters: MSCP (Multiple Species
Conservation Plan).

Now, a fragile truce between developers and environmentalists is threatened
by property-rights advocates conducting guerrilla warfare on the peace plan
devised by conservatives to put land-use decisions under local control.

The spectacles of courtroom brawls, bulldozer blockades and grass-roots
initiatives to protect the county's environment moved to the negotiating
table four years ago. Spawned by Gov. Pete Wilson, blessed by Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt and championed in San Diego by Mayor Susan Golding,
the MSCP transformed developers, property owners, land-use planners,
conservationists and public officials into "habitat planners."

Closely watched as a national model, the MSCP process was supposed to end
the environmental wars. With scientifically mapped boundaries defined
around the most sensitive habitat in the county, builders know where to
build, saving expensive federal review, and habitat is preserved in a
coherent contiguous system maximizing species viability.

Land developers and environmentalists working on the MSCP map were
reluctant players. But, these new pragmatists recognized that the
project-by-project battles were exhausting and expensive.

Environmentalists simply lacked the financial resources to indefinitely
defend habitat-sensitive land. Developers were coaxed on board because MSCP
eliminates the federal hoops required every time a gnatcatcher feather is

Conservationists worry that MSCP boundary lines will be drawn on the basis
of political expediency rather than on scientific findings; developers and
property owners worry that new endangered species will continually change
preserve boundaries. All the while, militant environmentalists keep in
touch with their attorneys as the building industry's old guard revs up
its public relations machine.

The MSCP must withstand two tests this fall to maintain the delicate
balance of interests. Several "deal points" for the county's plan,
covering most of San Diego's endangered habitat, come before the Board of
Supervisors in the next few months. The city of San Diego, which has the
highest concentration of voters and represents the largest funding source
for MSCP, decides the future of its most important MSCP property,
Neighborhood 8A, in late October.

Two county supervisors, backed by the East County ranchers and building
industry lobbyists who sucked the air out of the San Dieguito River Park
balloon, support a limp voluntary program that excludes private property.

The real test of the city of San Diego's MSCP began last January when the
Pardee Construction Company asked the City Council to "upzone" 390 acres in
Carmel Valley known as Neighborhood 8A to allow 1,572 houses and a
commercial center.

Federal and state resource agencies and subsequent environmental impact
reports told a story known by Native Americans traversing the
chaparral-covered mesa long ago: Here was special land found nowhere else
in the world. Without preservation, animal life in Torrey Pines State Park
would die.

A biologically based MSCP would not permit development in Neighborhood 8A
beyond the 39 houses allowed under the current zoning. But, pragmatic
planners could concede that concentrating development in the least
sensitive southern third would preserve the last animal corridor between
Torrey Pines State Park and Penasquitos Canyon, satisfying MSCP continuity
principles and saving the state park.

With the cooperation of a progressive developer and the city, MSCP becomes
viable in San Diego. The Carmel Valley community strongly supports
assessing itself at a fair price to buy the mesa property for an open-space
park that would be managed by Torrey Pines State Park.

But exercising old-guard gamesmanship, the asking price was set at four
times the city's appraised value, well beyond affordability. A
property-rights lawsuit is threatened if the city does not grant a zoning
change, and its citizens can't come up with the cash.

The resolution of Neighborhood 8A will decide the fate of the city's MSCP.
If the City Council changes Neighborhood 8A's zoning in October to
accommodate a bad plan, conservationists' worst fear that MSCP lines are
political, not biological, will come true.

And, if a zoning change is granted because of old-style political muscle
and legal threats, developers have no incentive to stay on the MSCP train.

The grand vision of MSCP is faltering without leadership. The complex
environmental policy, resulting from negotiations filled with the esoterica
of land-use regulation and habitat biology, is difficult to explain in a
sound-bite world. Government agencies lead the effort and cannot launch the
expensive public-relations efforts like those undertaken by well-funded
property-rights forces. And city officials don't want to publicly quarrel
with their country brethren, leaving MSCP without a strong public champion.

Without leadership, MSCP will become just another four letter-word in a
property-rights world, a victim to ideology over common sense.

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.