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A new threat to the habitat peace

In case no one noticed, over the past few years, peace broke out all over San Diego under a flag with four letters: MSCP (Multiple Species Conservation Plan). Now, a fragile truce between developers and environmentalists is threatened by property-rights advocates conducting guerrilla warfare on the peace plan devised by conservatives to put land-use decisions under local control. The spectacles of courtroom brawls, bulldozer blockades and grass-roots initiatives to protect the county's environment moved to the negotiating table four years ago. Spawned by Gov. Pete Wilson, blessed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and championed in San Diego by Mayor Susan Golding, the MSCP transformed developers, property owners, land-use planners, conservationists and public officials into "habitat planners." Closely watched as a national model, the MSCP process was supposed to end the environmental wars. With scientifically mapped boundaries defined around the most sensitive habitat in the county, builders know where to build, saving expensive federal review, and habitat is preserved in a coherent contiguous system maximizing species viability. Land developers and environmentalists working on the MSCP map were reluctant players. But, these new pragmatists recognized that the project-by-project battles were exhausting and expensive. Environmentalists simply lacked the financial resources to indefinitely defend habitat-sensitive land. Developers were coaxed on board because MSCP eliminates the federal hoops required every time a gnatcatcher feather is found. Conservationists worry that MSCP boundary lines will be drawn on the basis of political expediency rather than on scientific findings; developers and property owners worry that new endangered species will continually change preserve boundaries. All the while, militant environmentalists keep in touch with their attorneys as the building industry's old guard revs up its public relations machine. The MSCP must withstand two tests this fall to maintain the delicate balance of interests. Several "deal points" for the county's plan, covering most of San Diego's endangered habitat, come before the Board of Supervisors in the next few months. The city of San Diego, which has the highest concentration of voters and represents the largest funding source for MSCP, decides the future of its most important MSCP property, Neighborhood 8A, in late October. Two county supervisors, backed by the East County ranchers and building industry lobbyists who sucked the air out of the San Dieguito River Park balloon, support a limp voluntary program that excludes private property. The real test of the city of San Diego's MSCP began last January when the Pardee Construction Company asked the City Council to "upzone" 390 acres in Carmel Valley known as Neighborhood 8A to allow 1,572 houses and a commercial center. Federal and state resource agencies and subsequent environmental impact reports told a story known by Native Americans traversing the chaparral-covered mesa long ago: Here was special land found nowhere else in the world. Without preservation, animal life in Torrey Pines State Park would die. A biologically based MSCP would not permit development in Neighborhood 8A beyond the 39 houses allowed under the current zoning. But, pragmatic planners could concede that concentrating development in the least sensitive southern third would preserve the last animal corridor between Torrey Pines State Park and Penasquitos Canyon, satisfying MSCP continuity principles and saving the state park. With the cooperation of a progressive developer and the city, MSCP becomes viable in San Diego. The Carmel Valley community strongly supports assessing itself at a fair price to buy the mesa property for an open-space park that would be managed by Torrey Pines State Park. But exercising old-guard gamesmanship, the asking price was set at four times the city's appraised value, well beyond affordability. A property-rights lawsuit is threatened if the city does not grant a zoning change, and its citizens can't come up with the cash. The resolution of Neighborhood 8A will decide the fate of the city's MSCP. If the City Council changes Neighborhood 8A's zoning in October to accommodate a bad plan, conservationists' worst fear that MSCP lines are political, not biological, will come true. And, if a zoning change is granted because of old-style political muscle and legal threats, developers have no incentive to stay on the MSCP train. The grand vision of MSCP is faltering without leadership. The complex environmental policy, resulting from negotiations filled with the esoterica of land-use regulation and habitat biology, is difficult to explain in a sound-bite world. Government agencies lead the effort and cannot launch the expensive public-relations efforts like those undertaken by well-funded property-rights forces. And city officials don't want to publicly quarrel with their country brethren, leaving MSCP without a strong public champion. Without leadership, MSCP will become just another four letter-word in a property-rights world, a victim to ideology over common sense.

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