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For several decades, county officials, developers and environmentalists have been working on a plan to preserve habit across 290,000 acres of mostly rural North County while still allowing construction of new homes and businesses.

But as the long-delayed plan nears the finish line, environmentalists worry it’s being used to give a leg up to an unapproved and controversial housing development.

The developer Newland Communities wants to build a 2,100-unit housing development, called Newland Sierra, along Interstate 15 near San Marcos. Before it’s built, Newland’s project must be approved by either the County Board of Supervisors or voters.

It does not yet have such approval. That’s why environmentalists are wondering why the project appears along with a half dozen already approved projects in a March draft of the county’s Multi-Species Conservation Plan for the North County. The plan is supposed to save wildlife and habitat while also allowing for development.

In late April, a group of 16 San Diego environmental groups wrote a letter to Supervisor Dianne Jacob arguing that county staff is trying to help Newland by lumping it in with approved projects.

The plan draws lines around where developers can and can’t build projects in North County to preserve certain areas for wildlife and habitat. It wouldn’t determine what can be built in specific areas, but it could determine areas where nothing can be built.

Newland’s land is now included in the region’s developable area, along with already approved projects.

Doing so gives Newland predictability and likely saves the company money by limiting the amount of habitat preservation it needs to do. Those are substantial benefits, and they’re being offered to a private project that the county government has not yet approved.

“By putting it into the draft plan, it stacks the deck in favor of the developer, without a public interest reason for doing so,” said Dan Silver, the head of the Endangered Habitats League and one of the environmentalists who signed the letter. Silver is also on the steering committee that is working to shape the final conservation plan for North County.

The environmentalists, calling themselves the Wildlife and Habitat Conservation Coalition, pointed out that not only is the project not approved but there’s reason to doubt it will be: In 2010, the board voted to kill a similar project proposed for the same site, known as Miriam Mountains.

Newland faces two regulatory obstacles. First is getting the Board of Supervisors to approve the development, though the board is generally friendly to developers and San Diego is in the middle of a housing crisis. Second is complying with environmental regulations.

Developers looking for approvals of projects that don’t fit within the county’s existing growth plans must find ways to mitigate the impact of their development on the natural world.

In Newland’s case, the development is atop a rural mountain that is home to a pair of gnatcatchers, an endangered bird. A rush to save the gnatcatcher helped spawn the last quarter-century of land-use planning in San Diego County. There’s a landmark species conservation plan already in place around the city of San Diego. The North County plan is expected to be approved in 2021, though it’s been in the works for decades. Eventually, there will be a third plan for East County.

Newland has come to an impasse with the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife about how to mitigate the effects of the 2,135 units, 81,000 square feet of commercial space and school it wants to build.

Newland already plans to leave 1,209 acres of its 1,985 acres as undeveloped open space meant for wildlife. It’s also recently bought a piece of land in Ramona to preserve as on offset to the land it will develop — but the Department of Fish and Wildlife was pushing the developer to buy and preserve another piece of property as an additional offset. Newland balked.

In a letter last November to the agency’s regional director, Rita Brandin, Newland’s senior vice president, said the demands would make the entire project “financially infeasible.”

Being included in the North County conservation plan before the project is approved, though, may reduce the financial burden.

Silver believes Newland and the county, by including the project in its draft plan, are trying to back the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife into a corner.

The inclusion will create a veneer that the project is approved, and that presumption will carry the day.

“There would be political pressure on them to put away their red pencil,” he said.

Newland has a well-financed foe, the Golden Door resort, which is right across the road from the proposed development. The Golden Door offers high-end serenity to well-heeled clients that it fears Newland will destroy during noisy construction and then once people and their cars move into the new homes.

In a May 17 letter, Golden Door’s attorney asked the county to investigate “backroom dealing” that caused Newland to be the only unapproved project included in the draft conservation plan.

“Newland may have involved in [sic] County Planning Staff in its actions, placing staff in a position where they appear to be the developers’ advocates rather than neutral land use specialists processing projects for the public’s benefit,” attorneys wrote.

On June 5, the county government’s director of planning and development services, Mark Wardlaw, replied. He said that when the county releases a more formal draft later this year, it will explain “why certain projects were included.” He also said that the county “is not an advocate for or against the project.”

All the documents will eventually be published for the public to review and comment on, which is one reason Newland and others take umbrage with the allegation that county staff are working behind closed doors.

The significance of being included in the draft is debatable, as are the motives of those who are objecting to the draft.

Golden Door, for instance, has thrown up a variety of roadblocks trying to halt or at very least cut the size of the Newland Sierra project.

Brandin, the Newland official, also wonders why the Golden Door and other environmentalists are seizing on one project when the conservation plan itself is a bigger deal.

“I would challenge the authenticity of fighting a project in the context of the 290,000 acres,” she said.

The implication of that challenge is that critics just want to stop the project to stop the project, not necessarily to save the environment.

The Golden Door, however, paid for a study that said the area Newland wants to develop is critical for wildlife movement. In the coming weeks, Newland is expected to release its own environmental review of the project, which could likely come to a different conclusion.

Jim Whalen, a member of the conservation plan’s steering committee, said he is not sure why the Golden Door, Silver and other environmentalists are up in arms unless they’re just anti-development.

To Whalen, all the draft conservation plan does is draw a line where Newland Sierra can and cannot build.

“There is no connection whatsoever between the land use and entitlement process and the MSCP plan, because it’s only the footprint, it doesn’t talk about what goes into the footprint — you could have one unit or 1,000 units,” he said, referring to the Multi-Species Conservation Plan.

Whalen and Rikki Schroeder, a land planning consultant who has worked on some aspects of the Newland project, were both involved in the earlier city of San Diego conservation plan. They said other unapproved projects have been placed in the plans and some of those were never ultimately approved. Instead, the developers of what remain empty lots got stuck with land use restrictions that were hard to change.

Schroeder, a biologist, said she has a favorite stream that is important to her, but that doesn’t mean it’s important to everybody else. She said that was an analogy for the fight over the Newland site.

“Any natural piece of land in this county seems to be something to be claimed as incredibly important – it’s not all incredibly important,” she said.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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