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Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007 | When the region was debating the future of development and habitat conservation in the late 1990s, Jim Whalen worked with a group of developers known as the Alliance for Habitat Conservation. The resulting plan, known as the Multiple Species Conservation Program, was celebrated initially for devising a blueprint to funnel development to the least important habitat, while setting aside the best remaining lands in a preserve system. It has since been lambasted by a federal judge for its fundamental failures to protect certain species after a Mira Mesa development paved over many vernal pools — a rare type of habitat.

Whalen is something of a contradiction: A self-proclaimed tree-hugger who serves as a consultant for major home developers such as Barratt American. He’s a biologist and a developer, and he sat down to talk with us about development, fire planning and why the region should spend the minimum amount practical on managing preserved habitat — an issue voters will decide in 2010.

You’re a biologist and a developer. Do those combine for an oxymoron? Can you be both?

I think you have to be both. Because if you don’t have someone who can understand both worlds, you run the risk of neither side’s objectives being realized. … Ultimately and fundamentally I’m a business person. Our tagline is balancing the needs of the environment with those of business. It’s not the other way around.

Can you give a grade to the Multiple Species Conservation Program, to habitat conservation efforts throughout San Diego?

A grade?

A.

Why do I say A? As long as you don’t believe that perfection is the enemy of the good, I can’t imagine anything better than this. [San Diego has] the highest value of land in the United States. With the exception of Orange County, there’s no higher value of land that I can think of that has the same circumstances. So you’re dealing with billions of dollars in land value. When you’re dealing with that, you can’t expect that the resulting wildlife preserve is going to be all of the remaining land. The biggest areas where improvement may be warranted are the same areas that we said would be that way 15 years ago.

In the days before the MSCP, the normal assumption was that a third of your land would be in open space. Now it’s double that. The land value of the next third is in the billions.

I say A, because what else am I going to say? We have the land’s largest urban wildlife preserve.

You also have a federal judge who wrote of the MSCP that the covered species are “left in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose position.” And that species aren’t supposed to be listed as endangered just to give them a nice sendoff parade on their route to extinction.

The judge was reading a record assembled in the late 1990s, when the lawsuit was filed over the Cousins Marketplace in Mira Mesa. The judge, as well meaning as he is, does not have his facts correct. The other thing is funding. I’ve always said that was in many ways the Achilles’ heel (of the MSCP). You have to manage these preserves, and the public doesn’t want to pay for it. The public is cheap here. … The trick here is for public policymakers to decide, well, OK, what’s frankly the minimum — and I’ll say it for the record, what’s the minimum — that gets the job done. We are not in the position here to do the maximum until all the other needs are met at their minimum levels. The management of these preserves has to be done at a level that’s sufficient to get the job done.

I’m curious why today we’re talking about retrofitting homes for fire safety, why they weren’t built that way in the first place.

They didn’t care.

But the Laguna Fire in 1970 was huge. It doesn’t seem to have affected policy in the same way that these fires may.

I think it’s become obvious that it can’t be ignored. I think it’s a canard to say these urban-wildland fires are all about the Laguna Mountains or Fallbrook or someplace rural. We are always going to have open space around development areas. Look at the oldest parts of San Diego around Sherman Heights and Golden Hill. (They have) canyons. This is not a rural problem. It’s a problem of California.

I’m hoping that a reader will realize it’s not just about building houses in Jamul. You can build houses in Jamul that won’t catch fire. They have sprinklers on the inside, they don’t have the wrong kind of landscaping.

I think you’ll find some environmentalists who say developers caused the fires. And some developers would say environmentalists caused the fires.Both untrue. Does that mean a developer threw a cigarette out the window? To say that the enviros caused it is just as bullshit. You can thin vegetation. The truth is that anything can burn, anywhere, and if we buy into an environmental ethic — which everybody to the right of Genghis Khan would agree there is — I don’t think there’s any truth to either of those. But that’s in the middle. On the sides, yes, a lot of environmentalists aren’t environmentalists — they’re just no-growthers.

Developers can build safely anywhere, if we have enough land.

Are there places where development should not occur? For purposes of fire risk?

You need to have fire protection plans. You can’t live in a dangerous area and not expect to have some consequences if you do something foolish. Every 1,000 feet in our subdivisions, in fire-hazardous areas, have a road wide enough for a fire truck to get through. And an area for a firefighter to defend a home without being at risk of dying. Yeah, there are places you shouldn’t build houses. But it’s site-specific. It’s not that you don’t build in Escondido on the north side because it has old-growth chaparral. Don’t build stupidly. Those kinds of measures have to be done. You can’t build in a fire-dangerous area without taking certain measures. It’s just common sense. And it just wasn’t thought about in the past.

To what extent is it now?

All the time. All the time. All the time.

Supervisor Ron Roberts late last week announced the first application to rebuild. Is that something that you celebrate or something that you don’t?

I would say that it’s on a case-by-case basis for old houses. New houses have fire protection plans. I would have some pause for some of these (older) homes. You can set up a situation where you’re setting yourself up for what happened the first time. I may not be on the same page with some folks in my industry, who say it’s their God-given right to have fire protection and if their house burns down have insurance pay for it. There’s an element of personal responsibility that has to enter into this.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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