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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007 | In the last decade, thousands of acres across the San Diego region have been preserved to protect dozens of plant and animal species.
The land has been set aside as open space, but no funding source has ever been identified to ensure that what is conserved stays pristine. While those funds have been repeatedly promised — the money was first supposed to be available in 2000 — those guarantees have never been fulfilled, drawing criticism from environmentalists and a federal judge.
On Friday, the promise was again delayed.
The San Diego Association of Governments board, comprising elected representatives from each city in the region, agreed to postpone a ballot initiative from 2008 to 2010 that will seek voter approval for between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion to conserve habitat throughout the county.
This time, some say they are more hopeful that the latest promise will be fulfilled, agreeing that it’s unrealistic to sell a major ballot initiative to voters by next November.
“They’re nowhere near ready to float an initiative like that,” said Jerre Stallcup, an Encinitas-based conservation biologist. “If we put it on the ballot, we’re not going to have a second shot at it.”
The large pot of money for preservation would aid habitat plans in existence and those being developed in other areas of the county. It is being considered as part of a larger ballot measure that Sandag representatives are unofficially calling a “Quality of Life Initiative.” As currently envisioned, the measure would be as large as $6 billion.
In addition to funding for habitat conservation, it would include between $165 million and $200 million for beach sand replenishment and another $1.5 billion to $3.4 billion for improving storm water management.
County Supervisor Ron Roberts said he wants the large measure to also include funding for public transit, potentially adding another significant project to the budget’s bottom line.
Sandag officials say they need to include other projects to make the ballot initiative more appealing to voters. Two-thirds approval would be needed if Sandag sought a tax increase to generate the funding; polling has shown voters would not support a tax hike to conserve land alone.
“We want to go back with a strategy that wins,” said Marney Cox, Sandag’s chief economist. “Right now if we went back with just the habitat issue, we would lose.”
Habitat funding would help fulfill the promise of the 1997 Multiple Species Conservation Program, a plan that outlined a blueprint for the future growth in San Diego, Chula Vista, Poway, Santee and parts of San Diego County. The program was a tradeoff that allowed less important habitat to be developed in exchange for protecting the most vital remaining land. Instead of land being conserved or developed on a housing project-by-housing project basis, the program outlined a region-wide preserve system.
The San Diego plan has been criticized since its approval. In October 2006, a federal judge sided with environmentalists who challenged the plan in court. U.S. District Judge Rudi Brewster said the conservation blueprint may hasten the extinction of the very species it is supposed to protect.
Brewster chided the city of San Diego for never identifying a maintenance funding source and scolded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which approved the plan, for allowing it to happen. The habitat plan needs a dedicated source for maintenance, Brewster wrote in his ruling. So far, none has materialized.
As a result, protected lands are scarred by trails cut by off-road vehicles. They’ve become a popular place for illegal dumping. In some, invasive plants have pushed out native vegetation.
“We have altered the landscape so profoundly that the landscape cannot take care of itself,” Stallcup said. “There’s very few places you can go and not see those kinds of problems.”
David Hogan, conservation manager at the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that filed the lawsuit that prompted Brewster’s ruling, criticized the ballot delay. Hogan said the region should not rely on the uncertain promise of a public vote and instead levy an impact fee on developers.
“A public contribution is important and should be pursued,” Hogan said. “But developers need to pay their fair share for the massive benefit they get from the program. That means setting aside mitigation land and paying for its long-term management and protection.”
The program streamlines the permitting process for developers and gives them assurances about how much land they need to preserve in order to build. Developers support the 2010 ballot initiative. Jim Whalen, chairman of the Alliance for Habitat Preservation, which represents a group of developers, urged Sandag officials to make management a larger priority than acquisition.
“We want to see [preserved land] managed,” Whalen said. “We don’t want to see it over-managed, spending too much on something that doesn’t need that much care.”
The 2008 ballot measure to fund habitat preservation was a requirement of the 2004 TransNet initiative, which extended a half-cent sales tax to fund road improvements and environmental mitigation.
While it will be delayed, the ballot measure is still amorphous. Sandag officials do not know how they will finance the effort, whether using a tax increase or bonds.
Those discussions will begin when Sandag officials hold an annual retreat in January. The region’s elected leadership will start taking steps toward crafting ballot language, holding focus groups and educating the public, said Mary Teresa Sessom, Lemon Grove’s mayor and Sandag’s chairwoman.
“If we’re going to do it, we want to make sure folks know why we’re doing it,” Sessom said. “Two-thousand-eight is just way too soon for all of that to happen — and to be successful.”