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Sierra Club Sues San Diego County Over Carbon Offsets For New Developments

Harmony Grove Village, a new housing development seen in the distance from El...

Photo by Alison St John

Above: Harmony Grove Village, a new housing development seen in the distance from Elfin Forest Preserve, July 16, 2018.

The Sierra Club is suing San Diego County to block recently approved housing developments in North and South County. The suit alleges carbon offsets for new development in San Diego could benefit communities in other parts of the world, rather than San Diego.

In an effort to increase housing in San Diego, the County Board of Supervisors is voting this year on plans to build 10,000 new homes in places like Elfin Forest, Harmony Grove, Lilac Hills and Otay Mesa: places that were previously off-limits to development under the county’s 2011 General Plan for growth.

Among other things, the Sierra Club suit alleges the county‘s new Climate Action Plan does not protect the region from increased greenhouse gas emissions due to new development.

Attorney Josh Chatten-Brown, representing the Sierra Club, said the County’s new Climate Action Plan does require measures to offset increased carbon emissions, due to increased traffic. But, he said, those offsets to mitigate for more greenhouse gas emissions here in San Diego County could be in another country.

“It essentially gives unbridled discretion to the Director of the County Planning Department to allow unlimited development in the county,” Chatten-Brown said, “provided that those greenhouse gas emissions created by the project are offset somewhere in the world.”

The Sierra Club suit says those carbons offset measures in faraway places would be difficult to enforce.

The idea of offsetting carbon emissions by investing in lower emissions somewhere else is a model already in use under California’s Cap and Trade laws.

But a spokesman for California’s Air Resources Board, Dave Clegern, said he is unaware of other California counties suggesting carbon offsets to justify increased greenhouse gases due to housing development, except in a few specific cases.

Other Legal Challenges

Peter Andersen, chair of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, said there are other reasons the club is opposing the proposed projects in North County.

“We’re big on affordable housing,” he said, “but nothing in this plan has affordable housing in it.”

Jacqueline Arsivaud of the Harmony Grove Town Council said the community agreed to accept 700 new homes in their semi-rural area under the 2011 General Plan, only to now be faced with proposed amendments that will allow 700 more.

“We have done our fair share in accepting more development,” Arsivaud said. “The safeguards are being dissolved by these amendments and leapfrog development is happening.”

Arsivaud said two thousand residents in Elfin Forest could be trapped by wildfires because there is only one way in and out of the proposed Harmony Grove South project.

Housing Dilemma

San Diego as a region is behind on meeting its regional housing needs. Because of resistance to increased density in urban areas, there is growing pressure to build in the unincorporated areas controlled by the County Board of Supervisors.

The County declined to comment on this story because it involves ongoing litigation.

The Sierra Club is suing San Diego County to block recently approved housing developments in North and South County. The suit alleges carbon offsets for new development in San Diego could benefit communities in other parts of the world, rather than San Diego.

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