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San Diego County Still Working On Climate Action Plan

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego County is already working on another climate action plan, hoping they can come up with one that stands up to legal scrutiny, KPBS environment, reporter Eric Anderson says there will be a new perspective on the board of supervisors after the latest effort flamed out this past summer,

Speaker 2: 00:18 San Diego County is already put together for climate action plans. Each a spectacular failure.

Speaker 3: 00:25 It's just like Groundhog's day. It has been Groundhog's day. I mean, we just have to keep revisit

Speaker 2: 00:30 The climate action campaigns. Nicole capper. It says the County has been pushed by the state. California law requires all counties to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas they put into the year. But none of the counties, previous climate action plans survived legal scrutiny,

Speaker 3: 00:46 Defiant, I mean purely defiant, um, and didn't care what the state law said. And so despite what the court kept saying, like that's not okay. They just kept doing the same thing. So here we are,

Speaker 2: 00:58 Environmental advocates say they've shared their views about what will work with the County, but each final plan failed to include their input.

Speaker 3: 01:07 That's always been the crux of the problem. They really had their own game plan in mind. And so they were kind of having perfunctory public process, but they really, at the end of the day, wanted to continue to allow growth in the back country to continue to allow sprawl. And if we're going to continue to sprawl, we can't meet state climate goals.

Speaker 2: 01:27 One major issue is vehicle miles traveled. That's how the state measures of greenhouse gas emissions are getting airborne. 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 approved 14, large developments in rural areas.

Speaker 3: 01:49 Just stop pretending we can continue to develop.

Speaker 2: 01:53 Even the state of California has warned the County that those sprawled developments would hurt the state's ability to hit its 2030 goal to roll back greenhouse gas emissions. We need to embrace the climate change is real. Nathan Fletcher is a member of the board of supervisors.

Speaker 4: 02:08 We need to embrace that. We not only have a legal buddy moral obligation to have a climate action plan that addresses that. And I believe that early January, uh, this board will make a definitive statement, uh, to that end and begin to implement that.

Speaker 1: 02:23 Cool. So we do have a motion by supervisor Jacob. Second of my supervisor,

Speaker 2: 02:27 The reason for that shift is tied to the election. For the first time in years, the board of supervisors will have a three to two Democrat. Majority things are changing and it will not be business as usual superior court. Judge Timothy Taylor has ruled on a number of climate action plans and housing developments in the County.

Speaker 4: 02:45 My hope is that as a board, as we move forward, uh, judge Taylor won't have anything to do 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.

Speaker 2: 02:58 Wrong approach has created financial incentives for builders to buy rural land and then seek exceptions to County development rules.

Speaker 4: 03:07 If you can take land that is not appropriate to build housing and the general plan does not allow for housing. It has very little value. If you purchase that land for very, very little value and you jam through a general plan amendment, you can reap tremendous financial gain. And so we've physicalized and incentivized folks to fight for decades to put housing in the wrong place.

Speaker 2: 03:26 KPBS reached out to the building industry association, several times seeking comment. They did not respond to those inquiries. The trade group has successfully lobbied the board to approve developments that do not follow the general plan because they say those developments will ease a regional housing shortage. But if builders continue to push for housing in the back country, environmentalist say they have to compensate for the resulting impacts. Locally

Speaker 4: 03:53 Developers really need to take a look and see how they can offset all of these products.

Speaker 2: 04:00 The local Sierra club's Richard Miller says if developments cause more greenhouse gas emissions, the people who build those projects should be responsible for balancing the scales

Speaker 4: 04:09 By doing some very simple things like adding solar, possibly preserving the land that's around them, building electrification. So there are ways that they can reach a net zero on a lot of buildings.

Speaker 2: 04:24 Meanwhile, County staff are looking to build a climate action plan that will finally be resilient to legal challenges. That includes discussions with the environmentalist.

Speaker 1: 04:36 Joining me is KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson, Eric. Welcome my pleasure. Marine environmentalist. Say the board just did it again. The outgoing members of the County board of supervisors joined together yesterday to approve another major development. Oh, OTI ranch, village 13 located Northeast of Chula Vista. So is this another lawsuit waiting to happen?

Speaker 2: 05:01 Well, I'm not, uh, good at prognosticating, uh, when it comes to whether or not there's going to be legal action, but I can say that the attorney general of the state of California urge the County not to approve this proposed OTI ranch development, because he has serious concerns about the fire risks. He doesn't feel that the changes they made to the project were enough to mitigate what he saw as a risk to people. And, um, he also doesn't feel that there's an adequate evacuation plan in the event of a fire. So, um, there are some serious, clearly stated concerns from the state of California that may or may not lead into a legal challenge.

Speaker 1: 05:44 One of the ongoing problems the County has had in trying to get these developments through is convincing the court about its carbon offset program. Can you remind us briefly what is sure?

Speaker 2: 05:59 It's a pretty easy concept to kind of get your hands around it. Once you start to look at it logically basically what the courts are saying is that, look, if you're going to build new housing, if you're going to build new projects that are going to generate greenhouse gas emissions, then you're going to have to find a way to kind of balance the scales. You can't just build an add those greenhouse gas emissions to the overall total in the state. The state is looking to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, uh, they want developers who are building projects to be able to mitigate for those projects, basically offset any kind of an impact you have. And what the issue is is if you put four or 5,000 homes or, uh, into the back country, those people have to drive to work. They have to drive to schools, they have to drive to jobs and that creates greenhouse gas emissions. So moving the development further away from existing development creates a bigger greenhouse gas burden. And that's really what the state is saying. Look, if you do that, make sure that you can, you can balance for that development.

Speaker 1: 07:08 Is there any way that offsets could work to allow housing to be built in undeveloped areas of the County?

Speaker 2: 07:16 The people I've talked to with say, yeah, they could. Um, but, uh, but the thing you have to understand is, is the burden is significantly heavier. If you move the development further away from existing urban infrastructure. So those 5,000 homes, if they were built in the core of San Diego, probably don't generate the kind of greenhouse gas emissions that they would if they're built somewhere in the back country and it would make it easier for the County to, and the developer to meet that goal. And I think that's the message that, that, uh, state officials are trying to get across. And I'm not quite sure it's, it's quite penetrated at least at the County supervisors level as of yet.

Speaker 1: 07:59 Well, what kinds of things might the new board of supervisors consider as part of a new County climate action plan?

Speaker 2: 08:06 Sure. The new board of supervisors of course, is going to be, uh, dominated by Democrats for the first time, uh, beginning in January. And, uh, we talked to Nathan Fletcher about this. Um, he's fairly confident that the board will, uh, relatively quickly say, look, if you're going to ask for, you know, an exception to the county's general plan to build somewhere in a rural area, you really need to carry the water on that and show that you can balance the greenhouse gas emissions, um, show that you can make sure that, that, that is environmentally sound before they're willing to give you that. Okay. Um, it's not clear whether or not they can go back and unapprove projects that may get approved between now and January. Uh, but they will from January moving forward, likely have a different approach than what the current board of supervisors, which has dominated by Republicans have.

Speaker 1: 09:04 So is it your sense that most development will be halted until the County approves a new climate action plan?

Speaker 2: 09:12 Uh, really hard to say, uh, there is ongoing development now, uh, that doesn't require a supervisor's approval because it's in the confines of the general plan. There's a project up in Valley center. Uh, several hundred homes are being built right next to a major freeway. So it's right within services. It's inside the general plan. No lawsuit is on that project. It's going to add housing to the County. Um, it's just going to conform to, uh, what County planners were, were looking at when they considered, uh, the boundaries of their general plan development.

Speaker 1: 09:48 And when is it likely that supervisors might have a new climate action plan in place

Speaker 2: 09:55 Kind of hard to say, but they do need to have one, um, they're 10 years behind if you will. Uh, they were supposed to have one 10 years ago. Uh, the state is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels. Um, and they need all the municipalities in the state of California to participate. So it's just a matter of, uh, the County staff, you know, deciding on what they want to do. And, uh, you know, hopefully this time finding a plan that will stand up to legal scrutiny and then the supervisors, uh, adopting that plan.

Speaker 1: 10:28 I've been speaking with KPBS environment, reporter Eric Anderson and Eric. Thank you, always a pleasure, Maureen, you're listening to KPBS midday edition.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.