SDUT: San Diego supervisors narrowly approve Otay Ranch development over wildfire, climate concerns

June 26 – San Diego Union Tribune – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – County leaders gave their blessing on Wednesday to a hotly contested development east of Chula Vista that critics said would place people into the path of dangerous wildfires.

Sierra Club says it will challenge the 1,119-home Adara at Otay Ranch development in court.

After three hours of discussion, the Board of Supervisors voted three to two to approve the upscale 1,119-home project, known as Adara at Otay Ranch. Supporters repeatedly stressed the region’s desperate need for housing.

Supervisor Greg Cox led the push for approval after engaging in a lengthy dialogue with Cal Fire San Diego Unit Chief Tony Mecham, whose agency reviewed and approved the wildfire evacuation plan for the development.

“There’s no guarantee that I can give anybody that any community is going to be perfectly safe,” Mecham said, “but I feel today they have taken every appropriate measure that they can to address the fire safety concerns.”

Still, he predicted that fire would likely hit the project site in the future: “I do believe this area will burn again.”

Cox followed up: “Obviously, you can’t guarantee any development is going to be fire proof, but is it fair to say that this is a fire-safe community?”

Mecham responded: “Yeah, I believe that is fair to say.”

Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar also voted for approval, citing the need for more housing and pointing to the fire chief’s statements.

“We’ve heard concerns about the fire hazards and the emergency evacuation,” Desmond said. “I put 100 percent of my faith in Chief Tony Mecham here and his professionalism.”

Supervisor Dianne Jacob voted against the project, pointing out that the region is prone to uncontrollable firestorms in the late summer and fall when strong easterly winds, known as Santa Anas, whip through dried-out chaparral landscapes.

“Bottom line, there’s no guarantee,” she said. “When those Santa Ana winds come, and they come fast and they come furious, people panic and they don’t always do what the plan is laid out to do.”

Nathan Fletcher also voted against the project but made no comments.

The San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, the Endangered Habitats League and the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign have vowed to challenge the project in court based on fire danger as well as greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

“Continuing to embrace urban sprawl is climate change denial, and it’s unacceptable in 2019,” said Sophie Wolfram, program director for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign.

Adara at Otay Ranch is just the latest of eight projects in rural areas — totaling 10,000 new units — that environmental groups have set their sights on defeating.

The county Board of Supervisors approved a plan that would allow the developers involved to purchase so-called carbon offset credits to avoid restrictions on greenhouse gases. Credits can help pay for everything from reducing methane on dairy farms to conserving forests.

However, a Union-Tribune investigation from 2018 found that carbon offsets often go to projects that would have happened regardless of the cash infusions.

The county’s offset plan was struck down by a San Diego Superior Court judge last winter, a decision that’s now being appealed by the county.

The developers of Adara said that the purchasing of offsets, as well as solar installations and electric vehicle charging ports on the development, would result in an environmentally friendly project.

“Adara is a carbon neutral community and provides the county with more parks, more trails than required and a new fire station,” said Elizabeth Jackson, the lead developer on the project for Jackson Pendo Development Company, at the meeting.

Projects already approved by the county that are facing legal challenges from the Sierra Club and others over their use of offsets include Newland Sierra, Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South and Otay 250 Sunroad.

Adara is a 1,283-acre development surrounded by open space, including the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. It would feature a school site, commercial space, law enforcement storefront and its own fire station.

The site’s chaparral-covered landscape was scorched in 2007 by the historically destructive Harris Fire, and the surrounding area has experienced wildfire every 18 months on average for the last century, according to records from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

About 80 percent of unincorporated land is in high-fire areas, according to county officials.

According to the developer’s fire evacuation plan, the housing community’s roughly 4,000 residents would likely be able to safely evacuate as long as they have a three-hour lead time. The housing project would be built along the two-lane road that runs through rolling hills between Jamul and Chula Vista. The current gravel and dirt road would be paved as part of the project.

Residents from Jamul expressed concerns that the project would exacerbate evacuation issues for their community during a wildfire. The evacuation plan did not take into account residents from the rural community also having to escape during a firestorm.

“It did not consider the cumulative impact on the rest of Jamul, who also need fire protection and safety evacuation routes,” said Michael Casinelli, member of the Jamul and Dulzura Community Planning Group.

The developer’s analysis acknowledged that if a fire starts near the community it would pose a serious threat, but the evacuation plan provides few details on how to address the situation other than to have residents shelter in place.

Read the full article here.