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Border wall settlement could be conservation boost for San Diego

A large tract of undeveloped land in Proctor Valley just east of Chula Vista on Jul. 20, 2023.
Erik Anderson
A large tract of undeveloped land in Proctor Valley just east of Chula Vista on July 20, 2023.

Federal dollars from a deal between the Biden administration, 18 attorneys general and environmentalists could help preserve 1,200 acres of ecologically valuable land near Chula Vista. The money is part of a settlement over border wall construction under the Trump administration.

The federal government’s decision to settle a dispute over how the U.S. border wall project near Mexico was paid for could carry a windfall for San Diego County.

That windfall could lead to the protection of about 1,300 acres of wildlands.

“There’s this relatively large area of really remarkably intact natural habitat lands right up against the urban edge of eastern Chula Vista and the southern portion of the city of San Diego,” said David Hogan, the director of the Chaparral Lands Conservancy.


That land could be a benefit of a yearslong legal struggle over the expansion of the border wall between Mexico and the United States under the Trump administration. The government was sued over how the wall was paid for and the damage the barrier caused.

Last week, 18 states and two environmental organizations settled a legal challenge with the Biden administration. The deal included several concessions to environmentalists who have long argued the construction of the wall hurt wild habitats and the creatures who live there.

One condition of the deal is to create several openings in the wall to allow animals to move between habitats on both sides of the international border.

The federal government also set aside $25 million dollars to help preserve 1,284 acres of the ecologically valuable land in San Diego.

“That private property that was planned for just another awful sprawl development east of Chula Vista — if that land is protected, it protects the absolute core of that natural landscape,” Hogan said.


Hogan led efforts to restore vernal pools in the sprawling valley, which has remained largely untouched by development.

“The parcel itself has a lot of very valuable habitat, including habitat for golden eagles, some excellent vernal pool habitat, which is disappearing in San Diego County, and some of the last best habitat for the Quino Checkerspot butterfly,” said Peter Broderick, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity

But in 2019, San Diego County supervisors approved a request to build 1,119 homes on the Otay Village Ranch 14 parcel. The plan also included stores, a school and a fire station.

Environmentalists and California’s attorney general challenged the project in court, arguing that the county did an inadequate environmental review and pointing out that the proposed development would put people at risk because the area is prone to wildfires.

“Ninety-five percent of California’s wildfires are started by humans,” Broderick said. “So, when you locate new people and new development to undeveloped areas that are prone to wildfire, you create new risks. And that’s what was going on here.”

In 2021, the court agreed, stopping the project over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and wildfire risks.

As a result, the developer signaled a willingness to sell the parcel at fair market value which is estimated to be about $60 million.

“If you could reach a solution on acquisition and find something that’s mutually beneficial to the parties, then everybody comes out ahead of the game,” said Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League.

Proctor Valley road winds through the last major undeveloped and unprotect wild areas near Chula Vista on Jul. 21. 2023.
Erik Anderson
Proctor Valley Road winds through the last major undeveloped and unprotected wild areas near Chula Vista on July 21. 2023.

The Nature Conservancy opened talks with the owners and began raising the money. The $25 million settlement windfall moves conservationists closer to their goal.

“You’re never going to get all of the money from one source. You have to go to different sources,” Silver said. “So we next looked to different state sources, federal sources, even private parties. You know, individuals who might want to donate.”

Nature Conservancy representatives declined to say much about the deal because they remain in negotiations. They did say that, if everything works out, ownership could be transferred by 2024.

If the land deal goes through, the parcel would likely be transferred to either the federally protected San Diego National Wildlife Refuge or the state protected Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve.

The land will not be protected from development if the sale falls through.