Homes under construction in the “Signature” development in the Otay Ranch area of Chula Vista. / Photo by Andrew Dyer
Homes under construction in the “Signature” development in the Otay Ranch area of Chula Vista. / Photo by Andrew Dyer

They did it again. San Diego County’s lame-duck supervisors recently approved yet another massive new sprawl development in the ecologically rich Proctor Valley.

The Board of Supervisors signed off on Otay Ranch Village 13, which will bring thousands of new residents to a fire-prone area while paving over critical habitat for endangered wildlife. The board even shrugged off the California attorney general’s warning of “the increased risk of wildfire that the project will create.”

But the board’s three newly elected supervisors have the chance to take the county in a much-needed new direction.

The Otay project is just the latest in a long line of destructive and deeply unpopular sprawl developments greenlighted by county supervisors in recent years. It’s particularly disturbing that most have required special amendments to the county’s general plan — the “constitution” for development in the county.

San Diego residents have repeatedly pushed back on the board’s reckless land-use decisions. In some instances, voters have stepped in to reject these projects. In the March election, residents rejected the Newland Sierra development slated for Merriam Mountain reversing the board’s approvals. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lilac Hills Ranch project.

Residents have also successfully turned to the courts to challenge the board’s short-sighted planning decisions. Earlier this year, a judge halted the Harmony Grove South and Valiano projects after the county left the public in the dark about the resulting air quality and climate change impacts and didn’t adequately address wildfire safety and evacuation of potential new residents.

The county is currently embroiled in litigation over its controversial approval of the Otay Village 14 project and will likely face a legal challenge over its approval of Otay Ranch Village 13.

The board’s pattern of repeatedly approving unpopular, poorly planned sprawl projects that are overturned by voters and the courts is costly and senseless. It’s what happens when elected officials prioritize developer interests over the well-being and concerns of their constituents. County residents deserve better.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay this way. With the addition of three new supervisors in January 2021, the board has an opportunity to shed its past and promote the thoughtful, sustainable planning that San Diegans deserve.

First, the new board should stop punching holes in the county’s general plan to benefit developers. San Diego’s general plan contains policies to encourage smart growth, save taxpayer money, limit housing in high wildfire areas and protect wildlife habitat.

Handing out special exceptions for individual sprawl projects undermines these goals and allows big developers to play by different rules than everyone else. It’s systematic corruption that needs to change.

Second, the new board should adopt a climate action plan that tackles the climate crisis head on and fully complies with state law. Such plans can be invaluable tools for reducing greenhouse pollution. An effective climate plan can provide certainty to developers and ensure fairness and uniformity across projects, while putting a county on the path to sustainable, responsible growth.

Unfortunately, San Diego County hasn’t taken the process seriously and has had two previous climate plans rejected by courts. In June, a three-judge panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal struck down the county’s most recent plan because of a huge loophole allowing developers to buy their way out of limits on greenhouse-gas emissions with unverified carbon offsets of dubious effectiveness.

Third, the new board should commit to protecting San Diego residents by no longer permitting large-scale development projects in very high wildfire hazard zones. Prioritizing infill development in the county’s urban core areas, where wildfire threat is lower and people have access to jobs and public transit, benefits existing and new communities.

Supervisors can no longer ignore the clear relationship between more urban sprawl and the increasingly deadly wildfires threatening residents. About 95 percent of California’s wildfires are ignited by human sources like powerlines, and sprawl increases ignition risks and puts more people in harm’s way.

The newly constituted board has a chance to learn from its predecessors’ mistakes and take the county in a more sustainable direction. It’s time to turn the page and embrace smarter, safer development.

Van Collinsworth is a geographer, former wildland firefighter and the director of Preserve Wild Santee. Preserve Wild Santee is a co-plaintiff in litigation against the county climate plan and Otay Ranch project.

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