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San Diego County Still Working On Climate Action Plan

Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.

Photo by Associated Press

Above: Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.

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San Diego County is still trying to develop a climate action plan that allows for housing growth, while protecting the environment, and meets state goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Aired: November 19, 2020 | Transcript

San Diego County is already working on another climate action plan, hoping they can finally come up with one that stands up to legal scrutiny.

The county has, over the past 10 years, put together four climate action plans. Each was a spectacular failure.

“It’s has been like 'Groundhog Day.' We just have to keep revisiting,” said Nicole Capretz, the executive director of the Climate Action Campaign.

The county is being pushed by the state. California law requires all counties to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) put into the air.

Those local plans will help make sure the state is on track to take another 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air by 2030.

None of the county’s previous efforts to account for growth and GHG reductions survived legal scrutiny.

“They’ve been defiant,” Capretz said. “I mean, purely defiant. And didn’t care what the state law said, and what the court is saying. That’s not okay. They just kept doing the same thing so here we are.”

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Reported by Erik Anderson

Environmental advocates said they have shared their views about what will work with the county, but each previous plan failed to include what the public said would make the plan work.

“That’s always been the crux of the problem,” Capretz said. “They really had their own gameplan in mind so they were kind of having a perfunctory public process but they really, at the end of the day, wanted to continue to allow growth in the backcountry.”

One major issue is vehicle miles traveled. That’s how the state measures if greenhouse gas emissions are getting airborne because the majority of those emissions come from cars and trucks.

County officials have a general plan that aims to limit increases in vehicle miles traveled, by locating new housing near existing services, but the county has repeatedly ignored its own guidelines.

Supervisors approved exceptions for 14 large developments in rural areas, in just the last few years.

“Let’s just stop pretending that we can continue to develop the backcountry,” Capretz said.

Even the state of California has warned the county that those sprawl developments would hurt the state’s ability to hit GHG rollbacks by 2030.

“We need to embrace that climate change is real,” said Nathan Fletcher, a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

“We need to embrace that we not only have a legal but a moral obligation to have a climate action plan that addresses that. And I believe in early January, this board will make a definitive statement to that end. And begin to implement that change.”

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The reason for that shift is rooted in the last election. For the first time in years, the board of supervisors will have a three to two Democratic majority.

Fletcher expects the new board to announce early on that things are changing and it will not be business as usual. He said he hopes the endless legal assault stops flooding the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor.

The judge has ruled on a number of climate action plans and housing developments.

“My hope is that as a board as we move forward, judge Taylor won’t have anything to do,” Taylor said. “Because this county has kept that judge incredibly busy over the course of the last decade. And we’ve lost every single lawsuit because we’ve had the wrong approach.”

That wrong approach has created financial incentives for builders to buy rural land and seek exceptions to county development rules.

“If you purchase that land for very little value and you jam through a general plan amendment you can reach tremendous financial gain,” Fletcher said. “And so we’ve fiscalized and incentivized folks to fight for decades to put housing in the wrong place.”

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KPBS reached out to the Building Industry Association (BIA) several times seeking comment, but they did not respond to the inquiries.

The trade group successfully lobbied the county board to approve developments that do not follow the general plan because the BIA said those developments ease a regional housing shortage. But if builders continue to push for housing in the backcountry, environmentalists say those plans have to compensate for the resulting impacts.

“Developers really need to take a look and see how they can offset all of these problems,” said Richard Miller, a leader of the Sierra Club’s San Diego Chapter.

If developments cause more greenhouse gas emissions, the people who build those projects should be responsible for balancing the scales locally. That will keep the region and state from having to dealing with higher levels of GHG’s in the air.

“By doing some very simple things, like adding solar, possibly preserving the land that’s around them, building electrification, there are ways that they can reach a net-zero on a lot of buildings,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, county staff is looking to build a climate action plan that will finally be resilient to legal challenges. That includes reaching out to environmentalists to figure out how to keep their next plan out of court.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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