Recently, a debate broke out among city leaders about under what circumstances a lawyer could hold the city accountable for complying with its new, renowned Climate Action Plan.

It might find out a lot sooner than many of them imagined.

A nonprofit group run by the most outspoken proponent of the city’s plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035 sent the city a letter this month arguing that new community plans for San Ysidro, North Park, Uptown and Golden Hill all violate the Climate Action Plan.

The city has to redo the environmental reports for the plans to prove they’re consistent with San Diego’s climate goals, the letter says. If the plans can’t demonstrate how they’ll reduce greenhouse gasses consistent with the climate plan, the city needs to make up the difference by committing money for things like bike lanes and transit improvements to make it happen, the group says.

If the letter proves accurate, it could have far-reaching implications for the climate plan the city adopted last year.

It raises the concern that the city can’t meet emissions reductions while accommodating population growth. Or, it might just mean the city must dramatically reconsider its commitment to improving transit enough to make its promised reductions possible.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

It’s a reminder that while the plan was met with pride from city officials and acclaim from national outlets, actually implementing it will be an ongoing challenge.

In any case, the letter says the city needs to get back to work.

It was written by attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Livia Borak, two prolific activist attorneys who have previously sued the city on environmental issues like the La Jolla fireworks display. They’re representing the Climate Action Campaign, a nonprofit group run by Nicole Capretz, who helped write the Climate Action Plan when she worked for the city.

The letter didn’t explicitly threaten a lawsuit, but Capretz said it’s an option.

“All options are on the table,” Capretz said. “At the end of the day, we are committing to reaching the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the Climate Action Plan. That’s the option of last resort, litigation. But we had to raise our concerns on the flaws we see.”

The community plans outline how much new development can occur in the four areas over the next two decades or so. Each of them includes a number of so-called transit priority areas – places the city’s Climate Action Plan envisions accommodating a large share of population growth, which will lower emissions by letting people live closer to work and making it easier to forgo a car for daily travel.

Overall, the climate plan says citywide emissions will fall 15 percent by 2020, 40 percent by 2030 and in half by 2035. It uses 2010 as the baseline for comparisons from which the city needs to reduce its emissions. A lot of those cuts come from federal and state regulations over which the city has no say. But among those things the city does control, about 15 percent of the cuts come from changing the way people get around and by making it easier to live close to their jobs.

The main way the city makes those changes is by adopting new community plans. The ones in areas like San Ysidro and North Park are especially important, because they include so many transit priority areas.

The Climate Action Campaign’s lawyers say those plans aren’t consistent with the city’s climate plan for two basic reasons.

The climate plan promises to cut the city’s emissions from where they were in 2010. That’s the baseline the city uses to measure its progress in 2020, 2030 and 2035.

But each community plan doesn’t measure how much it reduces greenhouse gases from where they were in 2010. They measure based on how much emissions could have occurred based on the development regulations that were on the books in 2010, and how much emissions could eventually occur under the new plans.

For example, imagine a block in North Park has 20 apartments on it, but the current zoning allows for as many as 50 apartments to be built there. The city’s comparison says the new plan will reduce emissions from where they would have been if the 50 apartments had been built, not from the 20 apartments that actually exist.

That is, the city says the new plan, if it is ever fully built, will produce less emissions than the previous plan would have if it had ever been fully built. It’s a hypothetical new plan verses the hypothetical old plan.

But the Climate Action Plan promises emissions reductions from their real level in 2010, not from what could have been.

It all means the city could technically cut emissions even while emissions continue to grow.

“It is illusory,” Capretz said. “I don’t see how they can move forward with a fundamentally flawed analysis.”

Borak, one of the lawyers, pointed to a 2007 court ruling that said cities can’t analyze emissions by comparing the hypothetical byproduct of two plans. They need to look at actual conditions.

They also argue the city determined the community plans and climate plan are consistent because they have the same general goals – to increase population density, and decrease driving – rather than quantifying how the community plans will help produce the climate plan’s envisioned reductions.

The city declined to comment because the situation could result in litigation.

Capretz said she and her lawyers are meeting with the city this weekend to address the issue.

The letter asks the city to redo the environmental analysis of the community plans to show they’re consistent with the Climate Action Plan. That would mean delaying the eventual approval of the plans, which are scheduled to go to the city’s planning commission in September. The city would like the City Council to approve the plans before the end of the year.

Leo Wilson, chair of the Uptown planning group, said the Climate Action Campaign’s letter made a unique argument and he didn’t know what to make of it.

If the argument is right, he said, it suggests that the city’s emissions reductions likely can’t be met just by fostering dense development, as most had envisioned. Instead, it might result in halting growth across the board.

“This is out of left field, and I don’t know if they’ve looked at the consequences,” he said. “It looks like it defeats the purpose of the climate action plan. We’re trying to increase density.”

It’s a reasonable concern, Borak said, and that’s partially why the city needs to redo the analysis in the first place.

The city’s plan imagined emissions reductions because of a shift to a more sustainable development model citywide; more apartments in North Park, and fewer new single family homes in Rancho Bernardo.

If that’s the case, she said, the city could have done an analysis that showed a citywide emissions reduction by concentrating new growth closer to the city center and along transit corridors, even if emissions in that individual community increased simply because more people moved there.

But the city didn’t do that.

“If you don’t show us – actually show us – how this results in emissions reductions, then we won’t know where the emissions reductions are coming from and whether we’re reaching the city’s targets,” she said.

In another letter to the city, the North Park planning group also criticized the city for not demonstrating how the plan helped the city meet its reduction targets from the actual emissions levels in 2010.

Vicki Granowitz, chair of the group, said she doesn’t want the city to do a new environmental report, because she doesn’t want to further delay a process that’s been going on for 8 years.

Rather, the group would like the city to commit to building some projects that would reduce emissions– such as building more bike lanes to make it more viable for people to bike instead of driving.

“If the city is willing to fix their errors in some other kinds of ways we would prefer that,” she said.

Borak said that’s one potential result from the city redoing its environmental analysis. If a new analysis shows the city can’t make the required emissions reductions, then it would need to pay for projects that would get it there.

That might mean spending to improve transit service in the area, or further increasing density around transit stations (or both). Right now, the city isn’t showing exactly how adding a given number of new residents to a neighborhood with a certain amount of bus or trolley service results in a specific reduction in greenhouse gas levels.

It’s time for the city to show its work, she said, which might result in more transit spending.

“It’s not impossible for the city to put more money into transit in the city,” she said.

    This article relates to: Climate Action Plan, Climate Change, Community Plans, Land Use

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    You can build all the bike lanes you want, add all the buses and trolleys ...  but you can't force people to use them.  There is zero this city or this country can do to stop this planet from doing what it wants to do.  This is expensive foolishness.  

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Having watched this conversation for almost a month now, here is what I believe is not being considered:

    Reduction in lanes for increases in Bike and Bus lanes will increase traffic congestion, and that will increase air pollution.  A new EIR or a CEQA report would show this.   The air pollution output is a function of how many cars are on the road, and how efficient, or inefficient, they are running.  The same number or even a slightly smaller number of cars on the road, now driving in stop and go traffic, will create MORE pollution. 

    So although the lawyers, and folks at the Climate Action Campaign, want to threaten lawsuit they might discover something that they must not teach in law school.  Basic math.  More cars idling create more air pollution.  This may be  why Sandag board voted to not do a CEQA review for the recent bike plan.  A CEQA review would have exposed this basic flaw in the push for more mass transit, and bike lanes, at the expense of car lanes.

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    Thanks VoSD for exposing some of these issues but dubious non-profits are as corrupt as the Scam Diego kleptocracy, much incompetence & ignorance irt environment & community conditions while truth is obscured. There is no connection much less guarantee that any of their purported activities promote public good much less address climate conditions but launder & lose money, indulge cronies & appease their own self-interests, while energy is wasted on boondoggles, like the Park Blvd rapid bus to nowhere among other indulgences along with damages, & injustices that will get overlooked (or get paid to look the other way) by the shills & propaganda. The emissions were never getting resolved by the kleptocracy, the state supported graft exploiting motorists without making any changes or the state CARB that has no limits upon their cap & trade scam much less followed through with how they indicated the funds would get allocated while still promoting the myth of mitigation, allowing indulgences, bribing NGOs, hooking up cronies, filling their own coffers, allocating menial funds for pithy programs that would get accomplished anyway by natural processes, not administering or funding any possibly positive changes at the local levels (while they still are undeservingly on the Federal dole for energy, operation, maintenance, & else but promote their own boondoggles such as the CONstadium that is another conniving fraud from among many perp'd by Enron by the Sea), but misappropriating funds for the fast train that has no direction or destination. San Diego & Mission Bay are toxic but look at Mission Valley & whatever remains of the watershed ..., terrible, while the environmental impacts have been fraud-ridden without any objective baselines or valid monitoring to assess the immediate & extensive conditions but that is badness as usual among the people in this place. The urban heat island effect has increased along with more impermeable surfaces covering the land & albedo changes, the watershed is a polluted mess, consumption & inebriation are promoted, & other issues occurred throughout the city as well as the county that expose the hypocrisy. Promoting bike lanes is absurd since the streets are as dangerous than ever, whether for pedestrians & especially for cyclists where injury is indulged, exploited, & neglected without resolution. The perps in a  kleptocracy that indulges theft especially by exploiting others & supposed causes without resolution or support for those they exploit while appealing for perpetual funding, especially on the Federal dole, then indulges cronies, misappropriation, & other forms of malfeasance deserves no trust but prison. However there won't be appropriate justice since systemic corruption characterizes this place inherent with ethical disparity, moral perversion, & relative virtue.

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    It seems to me that both sides - government and lawyers, are wordsmithing and would guess that neither side will actually “do” anything except make plans and spend money.  Reduction in emissions in the next twenty years will come from better engineered vehicles which are already in the works. See below.

    There are numerous such stories.  Also hopefully Tesla will be successful in popularizing the electric car for mass production before 2035.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Chris Wood

    Right on Chris. And using "Uber" type access, nearly all travelers can use the very efficient cars already in the works and beyond: Especially the mom-drivers who now have to us mass transit.

    Despite Matty Azure's concerns, the superiority of autos over the years since the eye-watering 1970s is clear and set forth in SANDAG Staff analysis. Yes, there is a lot more to come, including electric cars.

    The best performance, both CO2 and pollution, is to improve the overwhelming number of cars. The best mitigation is to stop building even more mass transit and its failure to gain acceptance. Setting some valuable land aside is not a meaningful help.

    Put planned funds for mass transit expansion, currently $40 billion, into  speeding up Uber, the cleaner vehicles, and roads or electric quideways. This overcomes mass transit's access deficiency, t hat more and more does not,. 

    Even with current cars, a one MPG improvement saves more than the entire mass transit system.

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    @Chris Wood That's a ruse. They (neither do you) don't have a handle on the baseline much less extensive monitoring of all emission sources much less regard & account for other environmental & community impacts if anything connected to climate. The kleptocracy & NGOs are as incompetent as they are crooked.

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    @Walt Brewer @Chris Wood You are promoting subsidizing a monopoly that has dubious social & environmental purpose? Beside that, you allude to mitigation but that has been an exploited scam. You are correct about the mass transit problems, like the rapid bus to nowhere boondoggle along Park Blvd however Uber is not a solution since that relies upon the vehicles you indicate must get reduced. Mass transit in San Diego is rife with incompetent planning & execution.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Donald: Not promoting monopoly, recognizing it exists as the people's planning mechanism . Unfortunately as written before, correcting performance is a long indirect process through the ballot process.

    People need an immediate process for major decision review and correction in facts-based numerical terms. Agree not easy to achieve.

    This would include means to shift, with peoples approval, newer, better performing means, and perhaps get started subsidies.

    Vehicles for Uber can at least double mpg, and some run on guideways where more capacity is needed.

    Richard Willson
    Richard Willson

    The climate plan sounds like a solution in search of a problem. It appears to mix pollution and climate change issues inappropriately. Control of human pollution of our local environment is something we can and should do. Climate change is not.

    The threat of climate change from use of fossil fuels is a hoax. The C02 anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) hypothesis has not withstood the test of time. Predictions of the flawed, 1980's vintage global circulation models, on which CAGW is based, have failed to match observational data. The thrust of recent research has demonstrated that climate changes continually and is determined by natural forces (primarily variations in solar radiation) that humans have no significant control over.

    So there is no reason to sabotage the world's developed economies and relegate the third world to poverty by failing to use fossil fuels, the most cost effective form of energy. Renewable energy currently provides less than 5 % of total usage and it will be a very long time before it is available in quantities and at costs that can replace fossil fuel.

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    @Richard Willson True, you do understand the exploitation of the matter. Too many conniving schemes & hypocrisy, especially San Diego where they can't even get a baseline much less extensive monitoring on emissions much less regard other environmental, community & citizen conditions.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Been outside and looked at our air today? Nice and brown.


    San Diego tan?

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Cities and county representatives are the SANDAG Directors. SANDAG has a competent experienced Staff. Consistent with the Regional Plan, cant allocations for WHAT cities/county environmental actions be made, leaving cities/county leeway for HOW to accomplish? At least consistent dates?

    But participants; please read the SANDAG Plan analysis rather than fund allocations numbers.

    Despite spending $40billiob for new and improved mass transit, energy/pollution reduction by support to on road vehicles is nearly 20 times more cost effective. (City plan calls out 10 times.)

    Of about 20 million more daily passenger-miles neededto accommodate growth, mass transit provides 2 million.

    Overall Plan reduction in daily fuel used by cars is nearly 3 million gallons. Improver mass transit is less than 100 thousand.

    SB-375 Transit Oriented Development, including high density have been assumed.

    Why is mass transit principally called out for improvements? "Or, it might just mean the city must dramatically reconsider its commitment to improving transit enough to make its promised reductions possible."

    This is rote continued from the Governor's failed 1970's edictfor mass transit to absorb growth. Instead, cars' share has been 95%; as is their share of energy/emissions reduction in the Regional Pla.

    The "Uber" revolution brewing simultaneously must be considered. At about the same total cost/pass-mile as new mass transit in the Plan, on-call car service from door or curbside pick up overcomes mass transit major access deficiency, in a same car trip directly to chosen destination; probably in half the time.

    This quality of much preferred personal service using increasingly efficient cars can become The Public Transportationfor the future. It is the final step return to personal service taken up pre automobiles in the 1890s by streetcars. Especially attractive to non-drovers, now tied to mass transit, the "Uber" system, is adaptable to community density decisions.

    Analysisin the Spring edition of U. California Transportation Center "ACCESS" concludes:"Policies to increase car access among low-income households will most clearly enhance job gain and retention even in large metropolitan areas."

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    @Walt Brewer While don't you promote ride sharing & car pooling? Have people submit those activities for the accounting? Uber doesn't do that much less submit to public revenue obligations.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Donald Sexton @Walt Brewer 

    principal advantage for on-call, personal, same vehicle travel direct to destination, (Uber and competitors), is to  provide curb and door step access to what will become Public Transportation. It overcomes mass transit's main deficiency of poor access and large expensive fixed facilities and routes attempting to overcome

    Non-drivers, now locked into mass transit can have automobile quality on-call service.

    That can include ride share, etc .

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Climate Action Campaign's suggestion of adding bike lanes won't reduce total emissions unless adding those bike lanes requires removing car lanes. The reason is because every time you take a car off the road, you make room for another car to take its place and then you're right back where you started. So if the city wants to comply with its own climate action goals, it needs to do even better than what Climate Action Campaign is suggesting.

    Andrew Keatts
    Andrew Keatts author

    @Derek Hofmann To be clear, the Climate Action Campaign is requesting the city commit to mitigation measures. It didn't make specific requests for what those projects would be.

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @Andrew Keatts @Derek Hofmann though they did just tweet this: "We're holding SD accountable: community plans must measurably move the needle on biking, walking, & transit use."

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Scott Lewis @Andrew Keatts @Derek Hofmann 

    And who is accountable for the community deign , commercial, social, etc, to make them reachable by walk/bikers? Very roughly, SANDAG Staff estimates would put additional biking daily at around 1 million occupant-miles. A reepertable amount compared to less than 2 million by spending nearly $40billion for mass transit. Like autos, walk/bikes have the natural personal easy access.

    Walking/biking are good healthy modes, be aware of costs to make them contributors to a productive community.

    The same question applies to the major motorized transportation where the daily travel will become about 125 million having added about 25 million to accommodate growth, and at least keep congestion from rising. In addition to making facilities low energy use, what is the optimum density to minimize transportation energy and GHG reduction?

    That is a far more important issue, especially because of the "Uber" factor making personal auto use available to all. Autos do not have mass transit access deficiency, And there dominant numbers are where the greatest energy reduction is found as they meet new standards in less than 10 years. Less than 1 MPG improvement saves more energy than all biking. One bike lane does not interchange with a freeway lane.

    How do we shift emphasis away from a near trivial share of the total Regional energy optimization?

    Donald Sexton
    Donald Sexton

    @Derek Hofmann  True, they do promote that ruse despite the problems & dubious resolution. Promoting bike lanes is absurd since the streets are as dangerous than ever, whether for pedestrians & especially for cyclists where injury is indulged, exploited, & neglected without holding negligence accountable. How often do negligent motorists get cited? They don't because the kleptocracy want's to obscure how dangerous their streets are & the negligence of their motorists.

    I wonder about the personal transportation preferences & other activities exhibited by the hypocrites of SANDAG & other tyrants promoting this climate scam. Do as I say but not as I do ...