Several proposed developments are complicating San Diego County’s attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The county is currently rewriting its Climate Action Plan – the document that spells out how it plans to curb emissions – following a lawsuit from the Sierra Club.

A judge declared the county’s plan needed legally enforceable emissions reductions – meaning people should be able to sue the county if it doesn’t make good on its reduction promises.

The county already has what’s called a general plan, a blueprint that spells out where and how building can take place. The county’s general plan says new development should happen near existing development and transit, to avoid sprawl and discourage driving. The Climate Action Plan is a separate, complementary document that shows how the county plans to reduce emissions through various methods, including development, transit, renewable energy, water and agriculture.

But developers are seeking special permission from the county to build several projects that don’t conform with the general plan. Environmentalists are concerned the projects would make it impossible for the county to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets the state says it needs to meet by 2030.

The county Climate Action Plan, like the general plan, would likely encourage development to happen near existing development and infrastructure. Density fosters more walking, biking and public transit, which reduce carbon emissions. Many of these proposed projects would not fit into that framework.

“The more cynical view is they’re trying to get through these development permits before the Climate Action Plan is in place,” said Nicole Capretz, head of the Climate Action Campaign, referring to the developers seeking special permission to move forward with their projects.

Transportation is the county’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half – 47 percent – of the county’s emissions come from vehicles.

And since many of the big, pending projects aren’t along existing transportation corridors, and current transportation blueprints for the region don’t plan infrastructure near them, it’s likely the new housing developments would account for even more greenhouse gas emissions.

“At the end of the day the Climate Action Plan is a math equation,” Capretz said. “And if they’re not tackling their single biggest source, there’s no other measure that will make up for it. The numbers aren’t going to add up.”

Otay Village 13, a proposed project in Otay that’s been in the works since the 1990s, is one of the projects the Sierra Club wants to pause. The development would provide 1,900 homes, a hotel and lots of commercial space, while preserving 1,000 acres of open space.

These large projects are further complicated by a November 2015 state Supreme Court decision that said developers need to change the way they measure projects’ carbon footprints.

Stephen Haase, a senior executive at Baldwin & Sons and a member of the city of San Diego’s Planning Commission, is leading Otay Village 13 and said the company is currently redoing the greenhouse gas analysis in its environmental impact report.

“Twenty years ago, we weren’t talking too much about greenhouse gas impacts that we needed to mitigate,” Haase said. “I have no problem with continuing the planning process that was completed 20 years ago to make the project better on the whole.”

Haase acknowledges the project isn’t near transit.

In the future, transportation planners might connect Otay Village 13 with a public bus or shuttle route, but Haase said he isn’t counting on that when evaluating the project’s emissions.

To determine the amount of emissions the project would create, developers use the number of car trips they expect to generate. Then they add other sources, like the electricity each home will use, and subtract the carbon that would be absorbed by trees and other plants in any open space the developer plans to provide.

Most driving and transit use comes from people’s daily commutes to work.

“We won’t be able to rely heavily on reducing vehicle miles traveled for commuting,” Haase said. He said they will encourage car-sharing and telecommuting, or potentially figure out ways to get people to a Bus Rapid Transit stop a few miles away in Chula Vista.

Generally, though, Otay Village 13’s developers need to reduce emissions in other ways. Some would come from cutting down on other car trips, by building stores, parks and an elementary school in the community. And they’ll focus on limiting emissions from each building.

“That’s nice, but that’s not helpful,” said Capretz. “Work commutes are where most of the emissions come from, so they need to be mitigated.”

Indeed, vehicle transportation alone accounts for 47 percent of the county’s emissions, so the county and developers need to figure out how to address work commutes if thousands of new homes are going to be built away from public transit.

The developers behind Lilac Hills Ranch, another proposed project near Valley Center, make a similar argument, saying the commercial jobs in the community will cut down on daily work-related commutes.

In light of the need to redo their greenhouse gas analysis, Lilac Hills Ranch developers chose a different path to approval – the ballot.

That may protect the project’s developers from legal ramifications of not redoing the greenhouse gas analysis, but it won’t help the county. It’ll still be accountable for state requirements to cut its carbon footprint by 2030, Capretz said.

A Climate Action Plan is supposed to help the county meet those emissions reductions.

The county’s current timeline would have the Board of Supervisors voting on the Climate Action Plan next fall. Until then, it’s put out guidelines for developers who still want to continue the permitting process, but some environmentalists worry that if these developments are approved before the plan is, they could prevent the county from reaching its climate goals.

The Sierra Club has even asked a judge to either stop the county from processing these big projects or accelerate its Climate Action Plan.

“In our opinion, the county has really wasted a huge amount of time in this whole process and they don’t seem to be taking it very seriously,” said Josh Chatten-Brown, a lawyer representing the Sierra Club.

In a response to the Sierra Club, county counsel argued that the organization misunderstood the purpose of a Climate Action Plan and that greenhouse gas reductions can still take place to meet state targets, even without a plan.

Projects still need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, and that holds them accountable for laying out how they will address their emissions, the county argued.

The Climate Action Plan is also just one of several measures the county is using to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the county’s letter. It’s also making separate plans to reduce emissions through renewable energy, encouraging bicycles and pedestrians and reducing waste, county counsel wrote.

But just because the county’s general plan, and likely its Climate Action Plan, encourage new projects to be built near existing homes and transit doesn’t mean no development should happen in other areas, said Haase, who is working on the Otay Village 13 project. Those projects, like his, would just need to do extra legwork to analyze their future emissions and reduce them.

“There really was no analysis or discussion on the issue of the projects themselves,” said Haase of the Sierra Club’s action. “We’re redoing our greenhouse gas analysis and we’re sticking with the planning process.”

He can still ensure that Otay Village 13 meets the emission reductions it needs without a Climate Action Plan in place, he said. It just might not be through daily car commutes.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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