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.

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.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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