Saturday, April 15, 2006 | If you visit Duncan McFetridge at his quaint ranch in Descanso, he’ll immediately introduce you to the animals residing in his ranch. There’s Religion, an ex-race horse, and Romeo, a hornless, injured whale of a bull. McFetridge, the chairman of Save Our Forest and Ranchlands, said he saved Romeo after bulls from a nearby farm attacked him.

The next exhibit he’ll likely show you is a painting that hangs inside his wooden cabin. The oil-based portrait depicts a gigantic devil eating the trees off the countryside, only to dispose of homes the same way one uses a toilet.

“It’s called ‘The Developer,’” McFetridge said

We sat down with McFetridge to talk about all things urban and rural, including his colorful distaste of the real estate industry, his newest lawsuit challenging the planning of downtown San Diego.

Descanso is a long way from those condos going up in downtown. How does traffic in a neighborhood 40 miles away impact your East County ranch?

We see the Centre City (Development Corp.) as regional in its implications, in terms of number of residents, the jobs, it being the cultural center. Here’s what’s happening: For a long time we’ve been into the car culture, the automotive transit system. That’s the sprawl-developer-destroy-nature syndrome. If you look at any sensible high-density, livable, walkable city, it’s based on public transit. You cannot have auto-based transportation in your high-density environment.

How would you like to see downtown planned out?

My first nature – and we all have a nature and we spend half our lives discovering what it is – is that I’m a builder. That’s important to understand [when looking at] the spirit of SOFAR (Save Our Forest and Ranchlands), because I see building done improperly. What is a city but a giant house with many rooms? Do it right. You can change the whole culture of a community if you build the city right.

If you hire me to build your house, and you trust me … and I don’t put a foundation, you’d call me a criminal. Wouldn’t you? You never see the foundation, you just see the parts. It’s so simple. The city has a foundation, but you will never hear anyone say, “What is the foundation of this city?”

What would you say that foundation is?

It has five parts: transportation, housing, infrastructure, environment and energy. Here’s the thing about a foundation, as every builder knows, it’s different than its parts because a foundation never changes. That’s what makes this house sustainable.

[San Diego] doesn’t have one. We used to have one, [but we] tore it up. We used to have a trolley here that served all the urban area. You can go back to a city that has the same foundation. The Paris subway is 100 years old, they still use it.

What we do is continue building more roads, subdividing more land, and we actually don’t make any progress in traffic control, congestion or housing. It’s incredible, but we somehow still accept the logic.

Are there cities that you believe have good foundations?

We’re studying Portland and Bordeaux.

I just went to Bordeaux, just got back. We’re really excited about that city. We think there are some real comparisons there. So you can live in Bordeaux, I mean completely, and you don’t think about a car. The vineyards in Bordeaux are 400 years old.

I think it makes for good comparison because it has a center and 27 surrounding cities. We have a center and 18 cities.

The thing about transit is that it can’t be halfway. It’s got to be a complete system.

In your opinion, is there any hope for transportation in San Diego?

[In San Diego County], there is 800 square miles of urban area. Eight hundred square miles is a huge amount of land. We figure you can put about 20 Bordeaux’s in there. We have covered 800 square miles with literally 200 square miles of asphalt and concrete Now on Bordeaux standards, you could fit 2.6 million people just on that area of 200 [square miles]. Ladies and gentlemen, there is something wrong with this system, I am sorry.

Did you see this thing in the paper today? (He refers to a local newspaper’s article about a plan to widen Interstate 5 to 14 lanes in North County. The article is titled “The Great Wide Way.”) What was the logic behind it and the deception behind it? We already did this once or twice, and what was the rationale the last two times? To improve traffic flow. Isn’t that crazy? Two and a half billion dollars, and we’re going to have 14 lanes. Fourteen lanes?

SOFAR was successful in blocking urbanization in the Cleveland National Forest in 1993, but fell short with the rural lands initiative that would establish an urban boundary for the county in 1998 and 2004. Will you take it up a third time?

When we went for the forest thing, man, two-thirds [of the vote], it was a total victory. But when we went for the rest of the county, which was really important…we ignited big money, outside money, Chicago money, L.A. money and the lies. After 10 years of this, believe me, I’ve been there. It’s vicious.

When I say this was brutal, I mean it. These people know what they’re doing, they ran the ads as though they were taking our message: “If you want to save the environment, then vote no on Prop A.”

If San Diego County or indeed Southern California ever has a chance to have sustainable communities or a sustainable plan, it needs better city building. The other way to do that is the urban growth boundary initiative.

But we have no plans for [taking up that campaign] right now … We’ve been a little low key since last initiative. It was frankly because SOFAR committed all its work and resources into that and we didn’t make it. I shouldn’t say we didn’t make it; San Diego didn’t make it, as someone said. It was a terrible loss.

There were rumors that you were going to take on U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, in this year’s election.

I was. But the deadline passed. And that would be because of the Iraq War. It is poisoning our foreign relations. I just can’t think of anything more important. We have an argument that we’re putting out to all the cities, to put on their agenda. And that reason is that money is being wasted for all these terrible reasons and we are suffering in our own infrastructure. So we make more than a “just war” argument, but also talk about the local consequences.

There seem to be two significant proposals to bring two large links between the backcountry and San Diego: The Sunrise Powerlink and the maglev train to facilitate a possible Imperial County airport. What would these projects do?

What is the cause of this powerlink coming in? If we solve land use first, we may not need this. Then of course, there are other ideas. What if we put solar panels on every home in San Diego? What’s the cost? I bet it’s probably equal to building the stupid line.

I think if Dante were alive today, he would run the maglev right through to the ninth ring. Let me try to make a kind statement. It’s a crazy idea, but is it more than the Great Wise Way? Since we have never tackled proper building, we come up with all these crazy ideas.

You know what they did in Bordeaux? They just took three years to put in a new tramway system. Totally awesome. It’s a total success. It’s going to pay for itself by 2008. These (proposed projects) will never pay for themselves because they’ll never work.

Look, [Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista] is a great friend of ours, he endorsed our initiative. I think we’ve been on a ship without a captain, so normally rational people come up with these crazy ideas, and I think this is another one. We’re just lacking that fundamental, common sense about, “What is San Diego? Where are we going?”

– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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