Michael Beck and Sierra Club's Carolyn Chase tell us to vote for Pardee plan

Donna Frye conflicted

— It seems about as likely as a sudden agreement between the heads of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia to reunite and redevelop Yugoslavia. Yet there they are, the heads of two of San Diego's most powerful and highly regarded environmental organizations -- Carolyn Chase, chair of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club; and Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League -- telling us, in the sample ballot argument and in a slick spot-color mailer, to vote yes on Proposition M and allow Pardee Construction Company to build up to 5470 homes in the Black Mountain area of northeastern San Diego, 12 times the 455 homes permitted under the area's current zoning.

Chase's name also appears in the sample ballot as a supporter of Proposition K. This is a smaller but similar development proposal for an area due west of the one involved in M and owned by a different company, Potomac Sports Properties. Chase is in odd company on both ballot arguments; Benjamin Haddad, president and chief executive officer of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, has also signed the arguments for K and M, and Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham has signed the one for K.

This bit of strange-bedfellowing came about as a result of the defeat of Pardee's previous attempt to win voter approval for developing this area, Proposition C, in June 1994. "Basically, the developers sought our endorsement," Chase said. "We were requested to participate in the process. These two particular projects are the first ones to come up under the County's Multiple Species Conservation Plan [MSCP], and we felt duty bound to get involved to see that MSCP is properly implemented."

The story behind K and M really began in 1979, when, after four years of deliberation, the San Diego City Council approved an elaborate plan for managing the city's future zone. It divided San Diego into five "tiers" -- Centre City, Urbanized Communities, Planned Urbanizing, Future Urbanizing, and Open Space -- and allowed developers to build immediately in the Planned Urbanizing tier. The Future Urbanizing tier, in which most -- but not all -- of the lands involved in K and M were put, was supposed to be held back as an "urban reserve" that would be developed at some time in the future but could not be built on immediately.

But by the time the city council had approved the plan, it had also granted a major exception that moved a 4300-acre portion of the Carmel Valley area from the Future Urbanizing to the Planned Urbanizing tier. The owners immediately started construction of the development that became known as North City West -- and incensed environmentalists fought this and other "phase shifts" voted for by the council with Proposition A in 1985. This initiative set up the current propositions by requiring that any shifts of land from Future Urbanizing to Planned Urbanizing must be approved by a vote of the people.

One significant area escaped protection, however: Carmel Mountain, at the north end of Carmel Valley. Because Pardee Construction, owner of Carmel Mountain, had already filed a site plan for developing it, it had been moved into the Planned Urbanizing tier before Proposition A passed. "Originally, in the community plan, it was slated for quite a bit of development," recalled Craig Adams, then a Sierra Club official and now a staff member for City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe. "The people did not say, 'Save Carmel Mountain.' It was new information about its unique qualities that led to the effort to save it. Pardee has come up with several plans to develop it over the years, and the city council has rejected them."

"Carmel Mountain is the most biologically significant land in San Diego, acre for acre, and it has a high-development value," said Beck of the Endangered Habitats League. "That kind of inherent conflict created a phenomenally difficult negotiation that has been going on for years. This opportunity happened when Pardee decided to negotiate, which was a change in approach for them."

But while the San Diego leaders of the Sierra Club and Endangered Habitats were congratulating themselves on their success in negotiating with Pardee to end its ownership of 150 acres on Carmel Mountain, other environmentalists in San Diego County were reaching the conclusion that Pardee had taken the Sierra Club and Endangered Habitats to the cleaners in the negotiations. Alex Landon, activist attorney and 30-year Sierra Club member, is one of the signers of the ballot argument against M -- and he thinks 150 acres on Carmel Mountain is a poor trade for giving Pardee 161 acres elsewhere in the same zone and for allowing them to build at the high densities M would authorize. He's also upset at what he considers deceptive language on the actual ballot that ignores the density, traffic, and habitat implications of both M and K.

"The ballot language does not provide voters the true story on either K or M," Landon said. "Nothing is said about the increased density. The ballot language says there'll be 889 acres of open space under M, but that's space that is already protected under MSCP. And the ballot language says Pardee is selling 90 acres of freeway right-of-way for Highway 56 'at a price which is substantially below market value,' but it doesn't tell you they're actually getting $6.2 million for it."

The campaign against M is being headed by Leigh Crueger, secretary of the Rancho Glens Estates Homeowners' Association in the already developed portion of Black Mountain and a member of San Diegans for Responsible Freeway Planning. This group, Crueger explained, was formed as a coalition of six homeowners' associations, one in the city of San Diego and five in the county. Their main argument against both K and M is the massive amount of traffic that will be generated by these big increases in allowable density -- from 455 to 5470 units under M and from 421 to 4279 units under K. But Crueger is also concerned that these developments will destroy up to 20 times as much endangered-species habitat as they will protect.

"When Proposition C was defeated at the polls in June 1994, Pardee went back and sat down with the leadership of the Sierra Club and Endangered Habitats League of San Diego and agreed not to develop 150 acres of sensitive habitat on Carmel Mountain if the Sierra Club and Endangered Habitats would support M," Crueger said. "This is a Faustian bargain they made. The amount of environmental destruction that would occur with 5470 units is huge: leveling, silt, runoff, and destruction of sensitive animal and plant habitats. Maybe Carmel Mountain is sensitive, but should commuters be put through traffic hell just to save 150 acres?"

Crueger said the developers learned their lesson from the 1994 campaign, in which the ballot language for Proposition C did list the densities -- 14,870 to 17,500 units, almost twice as many as would be allowed if both K and M pass this year. He says that, even if the east-west Highway 56 is built, the new developments allowed under K and M will create traffic tie-ups over more than two miles and waits to get on Interstates 5 and 15 of over an hour and 15 minutes. He's got an interesting source for these estimates: a study prepared for Pardee Construction by a company called Urban Systems Associates, which was supposed to be an internal document but was released to his group during discovery proceedings in their lawsuit to stop the project.

"These developments would put a burden on our transportation system, which would create chaos," Crueger said. "Since people get antsy after waiting more than 15 minutes to get on a freeway and start looking for surface streets to take instead, this will spill over, and a number of local streets will become congested as well, particularly El Camino Real to Via de la Valle. Our position is that until the city, county, state, and federal governments can sit around a table about developing, and properly funding, a regional transportation system that works, these gargantuan projects are unwarranted."

According to Chase, Crueger's fears about traffic congestion are unwarranted because, as part of another phase of their negotiations with Pardee and Potomac, these developments will be designed in such a way that people won't need to use their cars. "We couldn't endorse it unless we also addressed open space, community design, pollution, whether people can live there without a car, and are the developments transit-friendly," Chase said. As for Crueger's other arguments, Chase believes the land they're allowing to be developed is "degraded habitat," much of it former agricultural land, which would require immense and expensive work to bring it back to its wild state -- whereas the Carmel Mountain area is still in its pristine natural state.

Chase also explained that the Sierra Club actually considers high-density development to be a good thing. "You should be putting housing near transportation and freeways and near to jobs and shopping," she said. "These developments are mixed-use. People could actually live in these communities without having to commute. One of the sources of opposition to this is people who don't want affordable housing near them."

Sierra Club staff person Paul Blackburn added that while the opponents of K and M are arguing as if every single authorized unit will be built immediately, the actual plans of Pardee and Potomac will probably take 15 to 20 years to be fully built. Blackburn also snapped that most of the opposition to K and M was coming from owners of existing "estate homes" in the area. "I call them 'estate mansions,' " Blackburn said.

Little about this issue upsets Crueger more than the accusation that he and other area residents opposed to M and K are a bunch of elitists who don't want the less affluent in their backyards. "It's politically astute to blame us as being NIMBYs because it's an estate area," Crueger said. "The truth is no one wants to protect the environment out there as much as the people who live there."

Where Blackburn sees affluent people living in "estate mansions," Crueger sees ordinary people organizing a grass-roots effort against a developer with over $800,000 to spend on the campaign. The financial stakes are more even on K, where the Fairbanks Ranch Homeowners' Association has raised a campaign war chest of $1000 from each member (in a 618-lot development) and has already sent out a mailing which, in a pun on the initiative's ballot designation, said, "Proposition K Means TraffiK." But without any similar large developments already existing in the area affected by M, Crueger's group hasn't had the opportunity to raise the kind of money it would take to counter the $800,000 Pardee is willing to spend. "They've already trumped us," Crueger said.

Both Crueger and Landon believe that the Sierra Club's idea that the traffic impacts of K and M will be minimized by people living, working, and shopping within the development and not using their cars is ridiculously naïve. They expect these developments, if built at all, to become classic suburban bedroom communities. "I was born and raised in Southern California," Landon said, "and unless we have a complete transformation in our society and rapid transit is made available to these developments, I don't think people are going to stop using their cars. It's bad planning to put so many people in an area with no access except 56 -- which isn't built yet and will have no north ramps -- or surface streets."

In addition to environmentalists on both sides of Propositions K and M, there are also environmentalists in the middle. The San Diego chapter of the League of Conservation Voters came within one vote of endorsing M but ultimately took no position on M and after that didn't bother taking a vote on K. The San Diego Democratic Club endorsed M but took no position on K. Former San Diego City Council candidate Michael Zucchet, a member of both those organizations, voted at the Democratic Club against taking a position on M but later acknowledged, "My personal position is highly conflicted but in favor of M. I am sort of leaning on K, and I suppose officially my position would be no position on K."

Zucchet argues for M in many of the ways the Sierra Club officials do. "We all recognize that growth is going to happen in San Diego," Zucchet said. "It's not a question of if, but how. This is a good deal for environmentalist and quality-of-life concerns. We get the Carmel Mountain reservation, and in return we allow for significantly greater densification than would otherwise be allowed in the area."

But Zucchet is also anxious about the strange bedfellows he's made in taking that stand. "It's very difficult to jump into bed with some of the people who are on the side of these propositions, including Duke Cunningham and the Chamber of Commerce," he said. "It's interesting, and somewhat scary, to listen to someone like Michael Beck argue for them and then the next day at work I get a letter from two land-use attorneys who would develop every space they could, who are on the same side."

Environmental activist Donna Frye, who is leading the campaign against Proposition D -- Sea World's development initiative on the same ballot -- is even more conflicted on K and M. "This has been a six-year process for the Sierra Club, and I'm coming in at the end of it," said Frye, who as a member of the board of the League of Conservation Voters voted not to take a position on M. "Usually I have a very strong reaction to things, one way or another, but this has posed a really serious dilemma for me. I wish I could say otherwise, but I don't know."

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