Judge Rules Against San Diego County’s Plan on Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Brings Major Residential Developments to a Halt

by on January 7, 2019 · 0 comments

in San Diego

Is this the San Diego County we know?

The Sierra Club is claiming victory in a court ruling that came down the day after Christmas against the County’s efforts to allow developers to buy their way out of restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, while North County slow-growth advocates are ecstatic over what it all could mean for large projects planned for their area.

And in the process Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor rejected the County’s Climate Action Plan as being woefully inadequate in meeting the commitment to reach greenhouse gas emissions reduction standards mandated by the state of California. .

Judge Taylor ruled the County’s plan for developers to be able to use carbon credits, or offsets from outside the County, or outside the state and or even somewhere else in the world, was not only unacceptable, it was unverifiable and unenforceable.

Here’s how Voice of San Diego saw the process of the use of carbon credits:

There are markets set up to make this very thing possible. If a developer wants to make up for a ton of greenhouse gas it emits, it can pay someone to plant trees that will suck a ton of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

But not all credits are created equal. Some offset options are on the other side of the world, others are nearby. The county says developers should buy credits for projects nearby, if feasible. Then they can look for credits within the state, then within in the country. If none of that is feasible, the developer can buy credits internationally.

Environmentalists argued this defeated the whole point of the county’s climate action plan. The county, they said, is supposed to be making sure emissions here fall.

A number of major developments that have already received County approval – including the controversial Newland Sierra project in a rural North County – could all be affected by Taylor’s ruling. The other projects include Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South and Otay 250 Sunroad. Also opponents of Warner Ranch and Lilac Hills Ranch projects are encouraged by this court decision.

Here’s what the Sierra Club said in their press release about the victory:

… the people of San Diego County and the environment were the big winners in the Sierra Club’s successful lawsuit against the County of San Diego for its Climate Action Plan (“CAP”). In a Superior Court ruling, The Court held that the County’s CAP failed to comply with the County’s prior commitments and achieve state goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“GHGs”) that are causing climate change.

The Court specifically found that out-of-County offsets of emissions—which the County allowed to take place anywhere in the world – were not the type of enforceable, verifiable, and long-duration emission reductions that were required. …

In a lengthy and well-reasoned decision, the Court held that the out-of-County offset provision was inconsistent with the County’s General Plan, and that the County violated the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) by allowing out-of- County offsets without sufficient analysis.

The Court also found that the County’s environmental impact report (“EIR”) was inadequate for numerous other reasons, including because it failed to analyze how facilitating developments in rural lands far from transit and often in high fire hazard zones could impact achievement of SANDAG’s regional plans for smart growth.

In the end, the Sierra Club had argued the County was not living up to its its obligations – and Judge Tayor agreed. As the Voice of San Diego put it:

Taylor said the county’s offset standard was flawed, particularly because a developer could buy an unlimited number of carbon offsets so long as they satisfied the county’s planning director. That meant projects could emit greenhouse gases and then developers could convince one person they had a plan to offset them, without any standards guiding how to enforce or verify that was the case.

Under Taylor’s latest ruling, issued late last month, any housing development that relies on the carbon offset scheme is halted until the county can come up with a valid climate action plan.

The Valley Roadrunner from North County analyzed that Tayor was very critical of the County’s logic for allowing local emissions to be mitigated by reducing omissions in another locale, and reiterated that the judge directly pointed to the County’s “fundamental, mandatory and clear policy” outlined in the County General Plan which explicitly states greenhouse gas emission reductions be local. The ruling was stark – the County of San Diego was violating its own General Plan.  The Roadrunner continued:

Not only does the County violate the General Plan, says the judge, it allows Director of Planning Services Mark Wardlaw to violate it at his discretion: “all that is required is the ‘satisfaction’ of the Planning Director.’ No standards or criteria are stated for achieving the ‘satisfaction.’ ”

The practical effect of this ruling could be that no large developments are approved in San Diego County that rely on cheap converted farmland for maximized profit, such as Lilac Hills Ranch or Newland Sierra.

In other words, no developments not already called for in the General Plan that was approved in 2011.  The result may be that developers will cease to view the General Plan as a mere impediment to largescale projects that can be overcome by greasing the regulatory and political skids with large donations—but instead, one with big, sharp teeth.

Newland Sierra, a 2,100-unit development proposed near San Marcos, could be the biggest project affected by the ruling. Back to the Voice:

The head of the project, Rita Brandin, said the ruling doesn’t apply to Newland because, even though her project uses an offset plan similar to the county’s, it’s not the same.

The Sierra Club disagreed, and hoped Taylor would block construction on Newland and other projects. Taylor declined to do that, but in a striking part of the ruling, urged other judges to sort out whether any projects are simply “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” because they use the same system but call it by another name.

Now, environmental groups will try to use that language to stop individual projects approved for rural areas. Already, county officials have shied away from approving other controversial subdivisions, like Lilac Hills Ranch, because of Taylor’s earlier rulings in the case.

Sierra Club San Diego president Peter Andersen took County government to task:

“The Board of Supervisors have to get serious about a real climate action plan that conforms with California law.”

And on Newland Sierra, Andersen stated:

“It’s going to be massively curtailed because those projects that have already been approved now have a permanent injunction. The ball is in the county’s court here in several regards. They’re going to have to figure out if they’re capable of doing a reasonable and doable and environmentally sensitive climate action plan.”

The County might appeal the ruling, but they frankly have a very poor record of appealing courts’ rulings against them in this area of climate action plans or lack thereof.

So, if Judge Taylor’s significant ruling stands – as is likely – environmentalists and opponents of unrestricted largescale developments have indeed won a victory. And you know what, this County could really truly be changing.

Just ask the folks working to stop Newland Sierra.

News sources:

San Diego Union-Tribune


Voice of San Diego

Valley Roadrunner


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