The Multiple Species Conservation Plan was a bitter pill to swallow for some San Diego environmentalists and property owners. But in the end, many accepted the MSCP because it was a tradeoff: In return for permission to develop property that some considered environmentally sensitive, landowners would mitigate the loss of this land by setting aside 177,000 acres of habitat in other parts of the county.
Just as the MSCP was being hailed as a national model, word came out of Sacramento this summer that stunned planners throughout California. This court decision placed the future of MSCP in doubt, and brought back the prospect of the fighting and paralysis that so many had thankfully thought was over.
The decision involved an Orange County landowner , Bolsa Chica , that had received permission from local authorities and the California Coastal Commission to replace a diseased grove of Australian eucalyptus trees with new housing. As mitigation, the landowner would establish another grove of native trees (at a ratio of three times what was torn down) in a larger area, more suitable for animal habitat.
This is the same kind of mitigation that is the essence of the MSCP.
Disregarding 20 years of practice and legal precedent, the state appeals court ruled that the Coastal Act does not allow any impacts to so-called sensitive habitats, regardless of how large the offsetting mitigation; regardless of how degraded and polluted the land; regardless of how minor the intrusion or how important the proposed improvements.
Scientists have known for a long time that saving isolated pockets of habitat a few acres at a time is of little value for giving plants and animals a real place to thrive. That’s why the MSCP was so important: It called for the acquisition and preservation of large plots of contiguous land that provide a superior system for habitat conservation. Projects without impacts contribute funding for conservation and restoration programs.
This kind of mitigation was the essence of MSCPs in San Diego, Orange County and elsewhere.
And the concept was working: Large wetlands in North County along Interstate 5 are being restored using just this tool, as are parts of the San Dieguito River Park and wetlands in the South Bay. But none of these projects would be possible today because of this most curious and unexpected court ruling.
And its not just property owners who are hurting: Local governments all over California have suddenly lost their ability to build roads, hospitals, bridges, anything if it so much as skirts one inch of land that some anonymous bureaucrat has declared “environmentally sensitive.”
State Route 56 Delayed
Already a recent news story talked about how the critically needed state Route 56 in the North City will be delayed by at least a year , or more , by this most curious decision.
The ruling mystified those who have long read the Coastal Act to call for the balancing of competing interests along the shore: Now there is no balance.
And those of us who work, play or visit that one mile strip of land that runs the length of the state of California , who someday will have to depend on better roads, better schools and better infrastructure , must know that the coastal zone is no longer a living, breathing thing; but an insect, trapped in amber.
There is some hope. State Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny, D-National City, is considering legislation that would restore balance to this most delicate area of the law. Though she has not made any formal proposal yet, her district includes heavily industrial areas that simply cannot function unless they occasionally intrude into environmentally sensitive areas , but always mitigating whatever they do by a ratio of three or four times the impact.
In the meantime, local governments all over California have lost a critical land-use management tool because of a ruling that, in effect, rips up a large part of their General Plans to manage their land along the coast. And until they go to the time and expense of writing new plans, the California Coastal Commission will be all too eager to make these decisions for them , from hundreds of miles away.
Projects On Hold
As it has already begun to do.
Also in the meantime, countless roads, jobs, homes, and wetland restoration projects are on hold because of this strange legal development that is so damaging to our ability to create workable communities along the coast.
As for the MSCP in San Diego, it must be considered dead in the large portion of this county that lies in the coastal zone. Or if not dead, mortally wounded, waiting for a legislative remedy to restore it to its position as the solution for both landowners, environmentalists and the interests of local governments who want a better coast, but who have now lost their most important tool to achieve that goal.
Boswell is a San Diego businessman.