Major housing and commercial projects proposed for rural San Diego County, the region’s last big stretch of undeveloped land, could grind to a halt for the foreseeable future.
That includes more than a half-dozen projects that would pour concrete on thousands of acres, from the envisioned 608-acre Lilac Hills Ranch in Valley Center to the long-pending 2,160-acre Star Ranch in Campo.
These developments would lead to more power usage and a significant number of new vehicle trips as people commute into urban job centers. The San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club said such urban sprawl would undermine the region’s and state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as part of its fight against climate change.
The chapter has sent a letter to San Diego County officials threatening litigation if these projects aren’t put on ice, at least until the county has a viable framework for measuring and offsetting the newly generated emissions.
That’s not an idle threat. For several years now, the county has lost every round of litigation with the environmental group — all the way to the state’s highest court.
San Diego County’s courtroom battles concerning climate change are widely seen as the first of their kind in California, setting off a series of other legal challenges against cities and counties.
Last November, for example, the California Supreme Court sent a proposal for Newhall Ranch, a nearly 12,000-acre, master-planned community in Los Angeles County, back to the drawing board. It said officials had to do a better job of addressing greenhouse-gas emissions.
For roughly the past year, San Diego County has been under a similar court order to overhaul its so-called “climate action plan” — and by extension its general plan. That includes outlining a legally enforceable strategy for significantly reducing emissions in coming years.
The Sierra Club said the county, which declined to comment for this story, has been dragging its feet on drafting a new climate plan and has tried to push through new development projects in the meantime.
“I don’t think we’re opposed to development per se,” said Davin Widgerow, chair of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club.
“But I think in any kind of development, we’d want to see that greenhouse-gas emissions were adequately controlled, that open space was preserved, that there would be reliable public transit options instead of reliance on freeways and automobiles — and a lot more density and infill, as opposed to expanding out into the backcountry,” he added.
The environmental group’s position has infuriated the Building Industry Association (BIA) of San Diego County. Borre Winckel, president and CEO of the organization, called the Sierra Club’s demand letter “legal extortion.”
The Sierra Club tactics will dramatically contribute to rising costs for housing, Winckel said. “And who’s always getting screwed?” he asked. “It’s Mr. and Mrs. middle class who will get denied access to a house.
“What is the upshot of the Sierra case?” he added. “Very simple: Even further reductions to new housing inventory, which will increase rent for existing projects first and then cause resale housing inventories to decrease. Talk to any broker and you’ll find out that people are not selling their homes because they have no place to go.”
The California Natural Resources Agency, commonly called CEQA, has become the weapon of choice for green groups looking to force local governments to take action against climate change.
In 2007, then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown settled a landmark lawsuit with San Bernardino County that required the municipality to track and mitigate greenhouse gases associated with land use.
That case kicked off a legal evolution that has increasingly converged on the idea that local governments need to mitigate environmental impacts in accordance with emissions reductions laid out in the state’s California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, also known as Assembly Bill 32, when updating their general plans. These are documents that lay out key zoning rules dictating whether development will be allowed to sprawl or remain contained within denser, more urban boundaries.
The CEQA-based legal campaign by environmentalists has frustrated not only the building industry but also policy groups that would like to see state lawmakers — and not cities, counties or judges — issue clear guidelines for curbing climate emissions.
The use of CEQA by nonprofits to force state reduction targets on municipalities is “definitely on the rise,” said Damien Schiff, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento. The foundation describes itself as advocating for “limited government, property rights, individual rights and a balanced approach to environmental protection.”
Schiff added: “Not only has the Legislature not acted, but the reality is state agencies have been slow in providing guidelines and as a consequence, you have the courts weighing-in in a situation where they’re not well-suited to adjudicate.”
Assembly Bill 32 calls for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in California to 1990 levels by 2020. But it’s not clear to what extent cities and counties should be held accountable for this standard.
Executive orders issued by governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown have raised the AB 32 threshold, setting the goals of lowering emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and then 80 percent by 2050.
However, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office has agreed with business groups and Republicans who insist those executive orders aren’t authoritative unless they’re codified into law. So far, left-leaning Democrats in the Legislature haven’t been able to muster the votes to do so.
The ongoing legislative tussle in Sacramento over this issue, which has most recently prompted Brown to consider a ballot measure, has called into question the future of emissions-reduction goals, as well as the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program for greenhouse-gas emissions.
In the meantime, environmental groups have pushed ahead with their legal approach at the municipal level.
As cities and counties update their general plans or approve large development projects that go through the Environmental Quality Act review process, the green organizations threaten to sue over the emissions issue.
As a result of negotiations that included legal pressure, La Mesa, Solana Beach and Encinitas have signaled a willingness to adopt legally enforceable climate plans that follow the state’s emissions standards, said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the San Diego-based nonprofit Climate Action Campaign.
“Cities don’t like to bind themselves or be accountable legally, so without CEQA we would have aspirational plans that would likely sit on the shelf,” she added.
This all started hitting home for local elected officials after the Sierra Club prevailed in a series of court battles against the county of San Diego concerning its initial climate action plan. It’s been revamping that document in a bid to satisfy the courts’ and environmental group’s scrutiny.
In 2013, Capretz, who was working as a staffer for then interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, helped persuade the city’s elected officials to adopt what’s now a nationally known climate action plan.
During the lead-up, she pointed to the Sierra Club versus county case.
But it’s not all cut and dry. Many environmental attorneys have said rulings on CEQA issues can vary from judge to judge.
And San Diego County’s situation is somewhat unusual in that its leaders set a higher bar by promising in a 2011 general plan update to later adopt a strong climate action plan — one that’s in line with the state law to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
That official promise gave the Sierra Club a significant advantage under CEQA, said Jan Chatten-Brown, a high-profile environmental attorney representing the environmental group in its case against the county.
She said the county isn’t allowed to amend its general plan to allow for new development until it has adopted a more robust climate plan. That includes showing how emissions from all new projects will factor into meeting the reduction goals required under the court case, she said.
“It was very helpful for us that they provided such specificity for what the test was, and when measured against the test, the (original) climate action plan failed miserably,” Chatten-Brown said.
As the county moves toward adopting its revamped climate plan in late 2017, a central question is whether it will have enough time left to achieve its promised emissions reductions by 2020 — even without any major new development in the backcountry.