A small Escondido nonprofit suing the county of San Diego got an early victory today when a judge tentatively ruled that the county is violating state law in bypassing environmental reviews on a $7 million vegetation management project.

The county argued that fire danger constitutes an emergency, which allowed it to skip environmental review and public hearings on the project to remove dead and dying trees in the backcountry. But Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager said fire danger doesn’t constitute an immediate threat that could allow a long-term project to advance without such review.

Rick Halsey, who directs the California Chaparral Institute and filed the lawsuit, said the county had been planning a radical tree-clearing project that could actually increase fire danger and waste public dollars. Halsey said today’s decision will hold the Board of Supervisors accountable to the public.

“It’s really gratifying because the court is telling the county they have to go through the proper review process when they conduct projects that dramatically impact the safety of its citizens and the preservation of natural resources,” Halsey said.

The county said it stood by its original position that fire danger is ever-present in the dry, drought-plagued backcountry, and it must act quickly in the public interest.

“We are under a constant fire danger,” said Deborah McCarthy, chief deputy county counsel, reacting to the ruling this afternoon. “These are dead, dying and diseased trees and they present a great source of fuel for a fire.”

McCarthy said the county will argue against the decision, but acknowledged it’s generally difficult to change a judge’s mind.

If the ruling is upheld in a hearing Friday morning, it’s likely the county would have to conduct a full environmental review and solicit public input. It may also have to halt the tree clearing work, although McCarthy didn’t know if or where the work is taking place.

— REBECCA TOLIN

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