By Tommy Hough
Cisterra Development's "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" office complex was approved by a 6-3 vote of San Diego City Council on Aug. 5, by way of an amendment to the Torrey Highlands Community Plan that will enable construction of the office park over the objections of neighbors, the Rancho Peñasquitos Community Planning Board, the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board, and almost every major environmental outlet focusing on land use within the city. It was upheld by council on its second reading on Sept. 10, again by a 6-3 vote.
Located south of State Route 56 near Del Sur and just west of Rancho Peñasquitos, the 420,000 sq. ft. multi-story, multi-structure complex will be built on an 11-acre notch surrounded on three sides – through a fluke of previous ownership – by the city-owned Del Mar Mesa Preserve.
San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action and our allies have noted, in a variety of forums, the environmental effects the construction will have on the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, which contains not only the last remaining portions of native San Diego coastal habitat left in the city, but the last remaining acreage of this ecosystem in California. This area was considered so vital and so worth keeping at arm's length from development, even the route of State Route 56 was altered in the early 2000s to give the area as wide a berth as possible.
Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped developers from picking away at virgin acreage on either side of the 56 freeway. Over the years we've seen the strip malls and 24-hour gyms and gas stations and casual dining restaurants move in to the north, while office parks eat away to the south toward the preserve, and space for habitat and nature is left ever more denuded – sliced away from the wholeness of our remarkable countryside and larger natural ecosystems.
We have a housing crisis and a housing shortage in San Diego. There is no doubt about that. We don't have a shortage of office parks or office space. Opposition to this project isn't about trying to prevent housing, it's about radical upzoning of property that benefits a select few. It's about neighbors saying, loudly, this is an absurd place for a needless office complex. It's about protecting one of our city's great natural preserves from the death by a thousand cuts it is currently suffering from. There is no meaningful transit in the area, and the Cisterra project does nothing to advance our city's Climate Action Plan. On that basis alone, it should be rejected, and another site found for it. It is indefensible.
Representatives from Cisterra admitted in testimony before council on Aug. 5 that they are essentially "built out" in UTC and Carmel Valley, and need to move on to find new areas to build in. Why do we owe them that pleasure? Especially since there is abundant empty office space in the area, and in areas like Kearny Mesa and Miramar that are already within our built footprint, closer to neighborhoods, homes, and potential transit.
And this is not a matter of the Cisterra development being a "one and done" project beside Del Mar Mesa Preserve. Rather, it's just opening the door. The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is the vanguard of other developments to follow, and more concrete to be poured alongside the preserve, joining Merge 56 and the inevitable holiday traffic jams of the incoming shopping center in Torrey Highlands, all further isolating the preserve like a native habitat freak show.
This project marks the beginning of more and more land being set upon for use within sight of, and within affecting range of, the Del Mar Mesa Preserve. This isn't what was intended when this area was protected. And if it was, it's not too late to change that dynamic.
Our parks, special places and preserves survive today as islands of conservation, cut off from one another, with only the most tenuous connection perhaps being a dry stream bed or a canyon bottom within the mesas that may have escaped development or being buried in fill. The proposal of this office complex is an affront to our reasonable obligations of stewardship. It is needless. It is an impediment. It is not housing. It solves nothing, while taxpayers lose out and speculators quietly benefit from the very solace the preserve was meant to protect.
The Orwellian-named Preserve at Torrey Highlands does not compliment the site on which it is to be built, or the native plants and species of the publicly-owned and accessible Del Mar Mesa Preserve that lie on three sides of it. It is the worst kind of monument for the city to jam into a space beside a locale that it should otherwise take exceptional pride in, and exceptional care to protect.
It is a terrible shame a majority of this council is unable to see open space beyond what it can be zoned for, or how the value of it can be increased, especially a parcel already within a protected preserve. Neither you nor I, nor the wind along the mesa tops, the dense oak woodland along Deer Creek at the bottom of the canyon, or the wildlife that silently live and pass through this valuable natural corridor will benefit from this development. The only beneficiary is San Diego-style business as usual.
Photos by Renée Owens and Tommy Hough.
By Kathryn Burton and Lisa Ross
On behalf of Protect Our Preserves San Diego, we'd like to ask you, at the Tuesday, Sept. 10, meeting of San Diego City Council, to reconsider the majority decision to approve an amendment to the Torrey Highlands Community Plan that enables construction of a 430,000 square foot office complex surrounded by the publicly-owned and habitat-sensitive Del Mar Mesa Preserve. The Council based their Aug. 5th vote to approve the rezoning on incomplete and erroneous information, listed below:
We thank Council President Gómez (D-9), Council President Pro Tem Bry (D-1), and Councilmember Montgomery (D-4) for their opposition to a project that simply benefits one developer at the cost of what is left of San Diego's habitat heritage. We ask that others reconsider their decision.
We had hoped that Cisterra Development would have allowed more time to pursue a land option appropriate for a swap with the City, and that public officials and staff would have made this win-win idea a priority.
Please note this letter from attorney Cory Briggs addressed to San Diego City Council.
Thank you for your kind consideration.
Club members Kathryn Burton and Lisa Ross serve as co-chairs of Protect Our Preserves San Diego.
By Richard Ram
Our third endorsement meeting of the 2020 election cycle is on Sunday, Sept. 29. If you're a member in good standing, or if you just want to see what our club is all about, join us as we determine how our club will weigh in with endorsements in several key races.
We want the endorsement seal of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action to remain the gold standard by which Democratic candidates and incumbents in San Diego and Southern California are considered on issues affecting our climate, health, development and transportation, green jobs, animals, open space, public lands, coastal ecology, and so much more.
Eligible voting members may fill out their ballots, vote, and leave at any time, but we strongly encourage all our members to stay, speak with, and hear from the candidates. We'll have forums for each race with multiple Democratic candidates, and we'll provide ample time for questions and discussion among members as we consider pertinent environmental issues. There is no better opportunity for you to ask questions and consider answers.
Club endorsement requires 60 percent or better among voting members. Carrying our endorsement means candidates may use our club logo and name on their website and related campaign materials.
As a result of bylaws changes voted on at our June club meeting, our endorsement process includes paper ballots formatted for ranked-choice voting, which will maximize member participation and help us arrive more quickly at consensus.
When voting, be sure to check off only one selection in each column. In addition to selecting a candidate, you will also have the option of choosing a No Endorsement option, in which the club may take a formal position of not endorsing any one particular candidate.
Any ballot with multiple markings, unclear voter intent, or "writing in" of other candidates may be counted as invalid.
If, after counting ballots in sequence of members' ranked choices, no selection receives 60 percent or greater of member support, the default of No Position will prevail, meaning the club will not take a position, but reserves the right to revisit the race later in the year.
Frequently Asked Questions
May I Bring a Guest Who is Not a Club Member?
Yes. Guests are welcome to attend, but must sign in with us at the meeting. Guests and new members who have just joined are not permitted to participate in the discussion, candidate questions, or in casting ballots.
Who May Cast Endorsement Votes?
Members in good standing may cast votes and participate in candidate questions or discussion. A "member in good standing" is defined by our club bylaws as having paid dues 34 days prior to the endorsement meeting, or have attended at least one previously scheduled club meeting. New members who joined at and attended our July 17th club meeting are eligible to vote at our Aug. 18 endorsement meeting.
Any member whose membership has lapsed within the last 45 days will be eligible to vote upon payment of their dues in advance of the Aug. 18 endorsement meeting, or at the start of the meeting. If you are unsure about your membership renewal status, please e-mail us immediately at email@example.com.
I Can't Attend the Endorsement Meeting. Can I Still Vote, or Have Someone Vote for Me?
No. This is referred to as proxy voting. Proxy voting and absentee voting are not permitted by our club. Ballots are only handed to members who have checked in at our endorsement meeting.
How Can I Find Out More About Candidates' Positions on Environmental Issues?
All participating candidates must complete a candidate questionnaire, which offer specific answers to environmental questions. Questionnaires are available for browsing at our check-in table. Candidate questionnaires are forbidden from leaving the room, and you may not photograph them.
Can I Record Any Part of the Meeting?
No. Video or audio taping of our endorsement proceedings, discussion, or candidate forums is forbidden. Any person found to be recording during the meeting will be asked to show that the recording has been deleted or erased, and may be asked to leave. Still photos are permitted of the meeting, but you may not photograph candidate questionnaires. Any person caught doing so will be asked to show that the photos in question have been deleted, and may be asked to leave.
Will There Be Refreshments?
Yes. The club will provide coffee, water, juice, bagels, fruit, and other related snacks. Please help keep the union hall clean, and re-use plates and utensils as you are able. You may also bring in outside food. No alcoholic beverages are permitted.
What Can We Expect On Ballots?
Paper ballots for races in which we have multiple Democratic candidates will be printed in a Ranked Choice Voting format. You may select your first, second, and third choices in order of preference. At any stage of your ranked choices you may select "No Endorsement" if you do not feel that any candidate or remaining candidates should earn the club's endorsement as the environmental choice in that race. Ballots will be distributed to each eligible club member, and may be completed and dropped into our ballot boxes at any time.
How Will Ballots Be Counted?
After the closure of voting in any given contest, ballot boxes will be taken for counting with club-designated vote counters. We allow one observer from each campaign to view the vote counting process. A candidate (or "No Endorsement" position) must receive 60 percent or more of first choice votes on ballots to win the endorsement of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action outright. Keep in mind that as a Democratic club our bylaws require a threshold of 60 percent of member votes for endorsement, as opposed to 50 percent plus one (+1) in a general election.
Any ballots that are illegible, marked in an invalid manner, or where voter intent on given ballot choices cannot be determined will be designated as "soiled," and will still count toward the overall number of ballots cast for meeting thresholds.
What About Members' Second and Third Ranked Choices?
If no one candidate wins 60 percent or more on the count of first choice votes, but at least one candidate receives a threshold of at least 50 percent in a two-candidate race or 40 percent in a race of three or more candidates, ballots cast with first choice for the candidate receiving the fewest votes will be re-tabulated for those members' second choice.
If this does not result in a candidate (or "No Endorsement" selection) earning 60 percent or more of members' consensus for endorsement, this process may repeat with ballots cast for the next-lowest vote recipient being re-tabulated for their second choice. If, after tabulating all ballots in order of ranked choices, no candidate (or "No Endorsement" selection) has reached a threshold of 60 percent or more of member votes, the default result will be of the club having "No Position." Members may elect to notice the same race for consideration at a later date in the campaign cycle.
If the "No Endorsement" selection attains 60 percent of the member vote at any point in the tabulation, the club will take an official stance of not endorsing any candidate in the race.
What Does It Mean to Rate Candidates As "Qualified?"
If, after counting ranked choice ballots, we have not arrived at any consensus for a formal endorsement or a position that demonstrates the will of 60 percent or more of our voting members, we may, at the motion of the membership, proceed to rate one or more candidates in a contested race as "qualified."
Qualified ratings are not endorsements. Qualified candidates are, however, recognized as being fully supportive of principles laid forth in the environmental planks of the California Democratic Party platform (as measured by responding affirmatively and unequivocally to all related questions on the club’s candidate questionnaire), and enjoying a significant measure of support from our club's membership.
Candidates rated as qualified may not use our club logo or name to imply endorsement or preference over other candidates that are similarly rated. Club members must be present to participate in discussion and voting to rate candidates as qualified.
For an illustration of how Ranked Choice Voting works in a general election, have a look at this short YouTube clip from FairVote.
Richard Ram serves as communications chair on the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action executive board.
By Richard Ram
San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action had our biggest, most successful turnout of club members at our Aug. 4 endorsement meeting – the first of the 2020 election cycle. Thanks to all who came out and participated. We had a record 144 voting members in attendance, and we may even exceed that number when we meet for our next next endorsement meeting on Sunday, Aug. 18. In addition, we've received positive feedback on our club's move to ranked-choice voting on our paper ballots.
We've also heard, in no uncertain terms, our members express their concerns about whether our club's political endorsements are properly reflecting the urgency of the environmental situation before us. There's a lot of pain and sense of loss felt throughout the conservation community, especially these past few years, as we've seen decades of hard-fought progress reversed by a tyrannically anti-environment, anti-science administration that was able to take office without earning the popular vote, and with mass voter disenfranchisement in swing states.
Time is short and the political will appears to be lacking. If we are going to take meaningful action to address the climate crisis and avoid a mass extinction of species that is already underway, we must act now. Failure and hand-wringing are not options.
We need real leadership on these issues, not just lip service on climate change. We cannot wait for some share of elected Republicans to "evolve" in order to establish some kind of across-the-aisle celebration of bipartisan support on bills that simply do too little, too late. We need leadership that is willing to stand up to powerful interests and their lobbying money. We need leadership that is willing make tough decisions that may cost them political support in some corners. We need leadership that seeks to do the right thing now because we don't have time on the clock to reverse bad decisions or weak compromises affecting our ecology and the viability of life on this planet.
The active participation of environmentalists in our club is critical to ensure we get it right. We've built a strong brand based upon standing up for a variety of environmental issues and engaging our membership on them. That the endorsement of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action is sought after – and fought over – is a credit to our membership, which have shaped our club into a powerhouse of issue-based advocacy within our local Democratic Party.
So as we move forward, let's be mindful of the responsibility we have to our mission, and to voters who may be less engaged but still care a great deal about the environment. In five years' time we've built one of the largest and most influential Democratic clubs in Southern California. Our brand matters when it comes to conveying who we trust as good stewards and bold champions for the green future we envision.
Richard Ram serves as communications chair on the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action executive board.
By Frank Landis
Remarks on the Preserve at Torrey Highlands to San Diego City Council on Aug. 5, 2019.
President Gómez, President Pro Tem Bry, Members of the Council,
Thank you for taking my testimony. I speak for the California Native Plant Society and for myself on this matter. In addition to being a former union member and a PhD botanist, I am also a resident of Rancho Peñasquitos, and I've been a park volunteer caring for the Del Mar Mesa Preserve since 2010, driving three miles a day to clean up trash and weeds. In all these roles, I urge you to vote no on this project.
First, the project will cause significant and unmitigated impacts to greenhouse gas emissions. We all know the city of San Diego is failing to meet its Climate Action Plan goals. This project will only make it worse. On that basis alone, please reject Cisterra, and send a message that you are serious about dealing with climate change.
Second, this project is a fire risk. To my knowledge, Otay Ranch Village 14, Newland Sierra, Valiano and Harmony Grove Village South in the county are all projects that being sued, in part, because they put a few thousand people in danger from fire. We are getting tired of developers putting people in harms' way, and quite honestly, so are the insurance companies.
The Cisterra project puts over 2,000 people in the way of wildfires, on a little peninsula sticking into the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, without an evacuation plan, without a brush management zone, without all the fire-safe features of an up-to-code house, without even properly analyzing the fire threat in the EIR (environmental impact report). The leapfrog sprawl developments I just mentioned at least had a fire hazard analysis in their EIRs. This one does not. On this basis alone, please reject Cisterra, and tell them that you don't want them to put lives and property at risk in their projects.
Third, there is the damage to Del Mar Mesa. As you've heard before, these are old-growth scrub oaks, one of the rarest oak species in California, forming chaparral so tall it's a miniature oak forest that you can walk under. It's the biggest remaining patch of its kind in California, and it's downstream from this project.
And what does Cisterra propose to do? They propose to dump their landscaping effluent into Del Mar Mesa.
They're going to use reclaimed water, which is too salty to drink, put pesticides and fertilizers on their landscaping to drive away the pollinators, then collect the runoff and eventually dump it into a gully, where it will erode an existing trail and flow into Deer Creek. What do you think is going to happen to the oaks around the runoff and those downstream? Del Mar Mesa belongs to the entire city, and the city requires properties surrounding such precious areas to take care of their runoff. Cisterra does not, and on that basis alone, you should reject their proposal.
Fourth, they want to plant large trees that are not native to the mesa next to a vernal pool, in a sad attempt to put green lipstick on a pig of a parking structure. There are two outcomes. Either the trees will die, because the mesa soil has a big layer of hardpan, or the tree roots will rip up the hardpan and destroy the vernal pool 70 feet away from the parking structure on the National Wildlife Refuge. That's a stupid design choice, and you should reject it too.
Fifth, I expected Jim Whalen to point out that the project's chaparral is only chamise, which is a low value chaparral. I agree — if we're talking about the top. If we're talking about the north side of the parcel, it's scrub oak chaparral. If we're talking about the south side, it borders on the National Wildlife Refuge and a vernal pool. If someone tells you this place is low value, ask them to give you a detailed opinion about the entire parcel and its surroundings, not cherry pick one detail.
You have heard from union members saying they support Cisterra because of construction jobs. We support unions too. And their families and children. People worked for months to try to negotiate a land swap so Cisterra could build somewhere else and this problematic parcel could become parkland. Cisterra walked away from this solution.
The Del Mar Mesa Preserve is a public park, open to everybody, including union members and their families. It's the only remaining place in the city where you can walk in the shade and see what the coast looked like when the first European explorers arrived.
I'll ask the room, by applause: How many of you would be happy to join a union member, or their families, on a hike on Del Mar Mesa? How many of you would be happy to take the city councilmembers or their staffers on the same hike? I personally would be thrilled. We want you to build, but we don't want your buildings to destroy their neighbors, and we don't want your buildings to put their occupants at risk from fire. Please join us in rejecting this project.
This project is not infill development. Everyone in Carmel Valley has a job, either in their spare bedroom like me, or commuting from somewhere else. This project won't magically cause mid-career professionals to change their jobs just to fill an empty office building. All it's going to do is force employees to commute from somewhere else. This will generate more traffic on Highway 56, which is not scheduled to be widened anytime soon, and will increase demand for public transit in an area that has none. Councilmember Bry has waxed eloquent on this problem many times, and I agree with her. It's unsustainable. On this basis alone, reject it.
Finally, there's the business case. There's over a million square feet of unbuilt office space already sitting in the immediate vicinity. It's been permitted, and it's sat unbuilt since before 2004. If there was a need for offices or industrial parks in that area, it would be trivial for a company to get a complex built to suit, with fewer environmental problems and less hassle. But there's no demand.
On this basis, and on all these bases, please reject the Preserve at Torrey Highlands and support Del Mar Mesa. Thank you for taking my comments.
Frank Landis serves as the conservation chair and council delegate with the California Native Plant Society, San Diego Chapter. He lives in Rancho Peñasquitos.
Photos by Renée Owens (top) and Tommy Hough (bottom).
"Your feet, taking one step at a time at a studiously slow pace, know the land better than the heads of any elected officials. Insert into those heads what your feet know." – Harvey Manning
By Tommy Hough
If you've been to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, if you've felt the breeze on your face and seen the expansive views from the mesas, you can understand why someone would want to build something there. Even an office park. That desirability is, in part, why the city wisely made the area off limits to development, and instead made it part of its natural preserve system.
That preservation is something the city of San Diego should be proud of. That someone had the humility to say no. That someone had the humility to say the wildflowers bloom and the winds blow and the birds sing here. Any time humanity is capable of putting the brakes on development, of pouring less concrete, less asphalt, from adding more rebar in this world, the nervous systems of all living things win.
So while I'm dismayed at the volume of development that continues along the south side of State Route 56, I'm particularly unhappy with the council's vote to approve the construction of a 420,000 square foot office park on an inward facing "notch" surrounded on three sides by city and state land of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, much further to the south than any of the other development that has regrettably occurred along the south side of the 56.
Cisterra Development bought this 11-acre parcel on the east side of the preserve from the Catholic church. It was never intended or envisioned to be an employment center. A visit to the site will impress upon anyone why this development is in the entirely wrong place. With a little bit of leadership and foresight, this area could have been incorporated into the city's mitigation matrix in its current state.
In between wild, rudderless claims from opponents that made it sound as though our coalition was made up of gated community fanatics opposing an affordable housing proposal, proponents of the project noted that it is not being built on the preserve itself. But only a fool would deny that the construction alongside the preserve, and the daily volume of thousands of cars going in and out of the area, will not have a detrimental effect. It certainly does not compliment the site.
This project will result in a loss of habitat that will directly affect the preserve and its role as a wildlife corridor, enable an increase in invasive species, and further "bite" into the vanishing wildlands in our city. The construction and daily use of multi-story structures, including a five-story parking garage, is no match for a few trees serving as "natural barriers" between it and the preserve. The very proposal of this office park is an affront to reasonable obligations of stewardship. It is needless.
Yes, the view from the office park will be tremendous – a view of preserved, public land. The location and proximity to preserved public land, in fact, is what will give this office park its "added value." But consider the view from within the preserve, or to wildlife having more obstacles to navigate to access what is becoming an even more isolated island of conservation.
And allow me to add an additional consideration for those who may feel the only thing affected by the project's approval is the "notch" surrounded by conservation lands, instead of the preserve itself: The preserve is already being impacted by surrounding development, and like all islands of conservation, is experiencing death by many thousands of cuts.
If you go to into the canyon of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, you can look right up to the mesa where this office park will be built. Within the canyon itself, you're in some of the oldest surviving coastal woodlands remaining in our city. The tangle is thick and remarkable. It feels primeval. Humans are only visitors here.
At the base of the canyon is a creekbed. If you go there, even today, it is likely flowing. And while flowing water in a place as notoriously dry as San Diego is typically welcome, the water flowing there today isn't natural drainage from a spring or snowmelt in higher elevations, but runoff from the watering of yards. Runoff from other office developments. It is, in fact, an artificial creek of treated water running through one of the wildest remaining areas in the city, carrying with it chemicals, toxins, detergents, bug and rodent repellants, fertilizers, poisons and plenty of toxic materials, all through a largely pristine site. That's a shame. And that has an effect.
And this office park won't be the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. It's the beginning of more bites into these wildlands, like the Meridian office project, and Merge 56, which at least has the passable benefit of being "mixed use."
Everyone agrees we have a housing crisis in this city. I spoke about this crisis non-stop on my campaign for District 6 last year. If there are ways to add to our housing stock in sensible places so people who work for a living can afford a home, in which developers work at the public's discretion, and which won't be lost to short term vacation rentals (STVRs) in the process, environmentalists like me will applaud it. We'll support it. We'll help get the project labor agreements to build it.
But this isn't even about housing. It's office space. As others testified on Monday, we have an abundance of brand new, vacant office space along the 56 corridor, and even more vacant, but perhaps less sexy office space in Kearny Mesa and Miramar. At those locales, the concrete has already been poured within our current development footprint. The roads, water, sewer lines and electricity are all there.
As I said before council in my testimony, voting against this should not have been a difficult decision. The area along the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, where the "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" will be built, was not only never intended as an employment center, but was considered so critical for mitigation that even the 56 freeway was routed around it in the early 2000s. No one was going to be put out if a project of this size along a city-owned preserve wasn't approved. In fact, it turns out the Sierra Club had been communicating with the developer about another potential area for the site at the Rose Canyon Operations Yard on Morena Blvd.
But apparently, that option would've been just too hard for the developer, though they admitted they were "intrigued." It would've taken too much time. It wasn't worth the cost of doing business to do the painful work with the city, or anyone else, to get it right. Instead of building an office park in an area that would've been a clear asset by being near the new Balboa Ave. station for the San Diego Trolley, along an established business corridor, and out of a wildfire zone, Cisterra opted to make no one happy by ignoring the opposition of neighbors and the more than justified environmental concerns.
Some developers may balk at the idea of being dictated to over the concerns I've listed. They may balk, and they may then know how the rest of us feel when being dictated to by them. I said throughout my campaign we need the expertise and capability of developers. They need a seat at the table. But we, the citizenry, must wrest control of our of future, and our city, from the hands of developers who have run the table on this town for decades, and who will shape shift into whatever form they need in order to work with whatever the prevailing civic trends are.
I applaud Council President Gómez, Council President Pro Tem Bry, and Councilmember Montgomery for having the courage to vote against this project. They should be praised for doing so, and they should be abundantly thanked. Please take a moment to extend your thanks to them as well.
So now the developer's "preserve" will be built at the people's preserve, with the size and scope of a small airport – an obscene affront in the face of one of the city's most revered conservation areas.
Where humility once reigned and someone once had the foresight to say no, when there was an opportunity to consider building the project somewhere else, the Orwellian "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" will be a legacy of this council. Looming over the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, it will stand as a monument to business as usual, bad planning, bad decision-making, bad faith, smashed coalitions, a dismissal of the obligation of stewardship, and a willingness to desecrate what those before us worked so hard to preserve.
It will be another San Diego environmental cautionary tale, all the more bitter in the face of the 6-3 Democratic majority on city council that approved it. It will be something we look at, 10 or 20 years from now, and shake our heads at in disgust.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He and his wife live in Mira Mesa.
By Darshana Patel
As a resident of Park Village, I care deeply about my community, the safety of my neighbors, and the future of our children and the environment – and I am truly disappointed at the 6-3 San Diego City Council decision on Monday to approve the proposed Cisterra Development office park next to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.
As I made clear in my testimony before San Diego City Council, this is the wrong project for this parcel of land. I serve as the vice chair of the Rancho Peñasquitos planning board, and the developer has made presentation after presentation to our board seeking approval since 2015. Never once have they offered genuine community benefit in exchange for the radical rezoning they have proposed, from agriculture to industrial zoning, by way of a community plan amendment.
The board continually requested that the developer reduce the scale of the project in order to make it somewhat more appropriate for this parcel of land, but time and time again they have refused to work with us. In fact, this is the first project that was unanimously denied by our planning board, as it failed to meet even the simple guidelines set forth to approve a community plan amendment. After all, it is not the responsibility of a planning board or the city to help a developer make their investment profitable, but rather to ensure the project aligns with city goals and the community plan.
A year ago, I spoke before San Diego City Council in support of the Merge 56 development in order to complete the Camino del Sur road connection – our second emergency egress promised since the neighborhood was built. Cisterra's project directly endangers that community benefit with about 1,800 cars at one critical intersection where the 7,000 residents of both the Park Village and Torrey Meadows neighborhoods will go to evacuate in a civil emergency, the most likely being wildfire.
The City of San Diego general plan calls for density to be centered around mass transit. But bus service is not economically feasible, and there are no plans to add any type of mass transit to our area. Cal Trans has no plans for an expansion of State Route 56 prior to the opportunity for expanded funding beginning in 2035.
And thanks to readily available mobile apps like Wayze, additional traffic from this office park project will divert directly in front of Park Village Elementary School to cut through to Black Mountain Road and I-15, or empty at the busiest intersection, creating unnecessary risks to students whether they are walking, riding a bicycle or riding in a car as they go to and from their neighborhood schools on a daily basis. The FEIR (Final Environmental Impact Report) concludes that there will be significant and unavoidable impacts to traffic and traffic circulation – a clear criteria for denial.
To be clear, there is no doubt we have an affordable housing crisis in San Diego. But we do not have an industrial park or office complex crisis.
The Meridian, located along Torrey Mesa Rd. south of State Route 56, has over 600,000 square feet of empty office space, waiting for tenants. One exit away, at Carmel Valley Rd. in Pacific Highlands Ranch, the 630,000 square foot Aperture Del Mar complex, intended as a biotech campus, similarly awaits a tenant.
There was neither economic need established, nor analysis presented by the applicant, to justify the radical rezoning they proposed for the "Preserve at Torrey Highlands." In fact, this project is not even part of the 56 corridor, as it jumps the Deer Canyon buffer and goes past the nearby mitigation bank.
The parcel in Torrey Highlands was certified by San Diego City Council and designated as "commercial limited" by voters in 1996. Commercial limited is explained in the Torrey Highlands Community Plan as inclusive of religious facilities, veterinary clinics or garden centers, and specifically intended to ensure compatibility with the adjacent Deer Canyon Preserve.
As I indicated in my testimony, I am not opposed to construction as this site, but it is clear that today's city council – with the courageous exception of Council President Gómez, Council President pro tem Bry, and Councilmember Montgomery – have lost their environmental bearings. In doing so, they have betrayed the mandate of voters by enabling another mammoth office park project, with zero benefit to the community.
Darshana Patel is a community leader, elected member and vice chair of the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board with service on the land use committee, and an elected trustee and president of the Poway Unified Board of Education.
By Tommy Hough
Around the nation, and even here at home, our environment is under attack.
From the rollback of long-standing environmental and conservation laws by the Trump administration, to the ongoing desecration of reputable and effective regulatory agencies, to attempts by members of our own party to undo the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and enable runaway development, now is the bleakest period for the environment in our nation in over 60 years.
That's why we need your help at San Diego City Council this Monday, Aug. 5, to stand with us and our allies to stop an exceptionally bad environmental precedent and development proposal pointed like a dagger at the sanctity of our preserved, yet rapidly vanishing, urban wildlands.
This spring, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action members unanimously voted to oppose an office park proposal at Del Mar Mesa Preserve that's being marketed by Cisterra Development under the Orwellian name of the "Preserve at Torrey Highlands," near the communities of Rancho Peñasquitos and Del Sur south of State Route 56.
The proposal is anything but a "preserve." Even though the area itself was initially set aside for mitigation from previous projects, the multi-story, 450,000 square foot office complex is surrounded on three sides by the protected Del Mar Mesa Preserve, and will aggravate the dilemma of preserves marooned as "islands of conservation" with a further loss of habitat that will directly affect the preserve and its role as a wildlife corridor, enable an increase in invasive species, and further "bite" into our vanishing native wildlands.
In fact, development on "the notch" site atop the mesa may even be illegal, and will require a change to the Torrey Highlands Community and City of San Diego general plans simply to facilitate construction.
We'd like you to join our club and other coalition members at Civic Center Plaza this Monday, Aug. 5, beginning at 12:30 p.m. as we voice our opposition with a press event and rally at Civic Center Plaza at City Hall (202 West C St.), followed by testimony during the afternoon session of San Diego City Council beginning at 2 pm.
Our ask is for you to wear your club shirt and attend the press event and council meeting with us. Be seen. Bring a sign. Even if you don't want to speak at the council meeting, you can cede your time to those from our coalition who would like to speak or have prepared remarks.
If you joined us for our hike at Del Mar Mesa Preserve with the California Native Plant Society in May, you know what a special place the preserve is, and how it contains some of the last vestiges of oak woodland and native coastal canyon habitat in our region.
Development has been inching south from State Route 56 and toward the preserve for years. But even this development marks an extraordinary leap into heretofore undisturbed habitat. The best solution is for this project to go somewhere else. Even construction of State Route 56 in the early 2000s was routed around the proposed site of the office complex because of its critical conservation qualities.
RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know if you can make it on Monday, or click on our club Facebook event page. Wear your club shirts and join us this Monday, Aug. 5, beginning at 12:30 p.m. at Civic Center Plaza at San Diego City Hall, 202 West C St., San Diego, CA 92101. If you're going to join us for the council meeting, be prepared to stay throughout the afternoon, and make appropriate transportation or parking arrangements.
Thank you as always for your support. This is a moment our local environment needs it.
If you missed it, have a look at club president Cody Petterson's testimony and choice words on the proposed office park at Del Mar Mesa Preserve to the city planning commission in April.
Photo slideshow by Tommy Hough. To see club member Renée Owens' photos from our Del Mar Mesa Preserve hike this past May, including the two photos below, please click here.
By Cody Petterson and Tommy Hough
Five years ago this week, long before the endorsements, meetings, press conferences, forums, and canvassing that followed, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action held its first organizational meeting at the San Diego County Democratic Party office in Kearny Mesa.
The idea was to establish the county's first Democratic club specifically dedicated to the promotion and preservation of our environment. Little did we know, at the time, we were only the second county Democratic party in the state to do so, after the Green Democrats of Sacramento County.
We initially met to elect our founding club officers, adopt our first bylaws, and develop a consensus about the character of the club. Those present shared their environmental priorities and hopes for the club. All agreed the time was long overdue for an affinity club in the county Democratic party to debate and advance environmental policy within the party, to endorse and help elect environmentally committed candidates, and to hold our elected officials accountable.
The vision of the club was informed by the time founding president Tommy Hough spent managing communications for the wilderness advocacy organization Oregon Wild. Again and again, Tommy saw how Democratic policymakers in Oregon made poor, tone-deaf decisions on old-growth logging, reckless clearcuts, and wildlife management that failed their constituents, and failed the earth. Upon his return to San Diego, Tommy resolved to ensure there was a place where environmental policy could be debated, developed, and utilized to win elections, and where constituents, activists, policymakers, and staff could go for answers.
Over the last five years, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action have taken stands on matters ranging from fracking, ocean desalination, environmental justice, public lands, land use, renewable energy, transit, housing, and climate action, which have often been at odds with where the party itself was being driven by corporate donors and Wall Street. Those fights continue today.
As a club, we also resolved early on to facilitate opportunities to hike and visit threatened areas, like the El Monte Valley, Chollas Creek, or the Del Mar Mesa Preserve. These intimate experiences with San Diego's threatened natural heritage have given added passion and impetus to our efforts to preserve our county's unrivaled biodiversity.
As we head into our club's third full election cycle, we strive to maintain the most rigorous, fair, and transparent endorsement process of any Democratic club in the county, because we know how valuable our seal of approval is for San Diego voters, for whom the environment is a perennial priority. Any candidate who has been through our endorsement process knows our forums are well-moderated and well-attended, and that our club's decision is the product of a lengthy, demanding process of inquiry and deliberation.
We look forward to the next five years, which promise to be just as much of an adventure as the first. To those who've been a part of our journey, thank you for sharing the burden. And the joy.
By Tommy Hough
Visiting a National Park shouldn't be seen as a political statement or an act of self-actualizing resistance. Ordinarily, I would never advocate for such a thing in relation to America's Best Idea, or as a means to symbolically push back against a corrupt and cruel regime – even one as vile as this administration.
But at this moment, our National Park Service (NPS) could use some love and attention. It could also use some respect – and you and I can demonstrate that respect.
Our National Parks and Wilderness areas are places where Americans can, should, and frequently do, come together without obsessing over what political stripe they identify with. Our outdoors have always been part of what binds us together as Americans, serving as a common symbol of pride and expression of humility at the foot of our nation's most remarkable landscapes.
As humans we are naturally imperfect, and therefore, we are an imperfect nation. But as a nation, we also have the capacity within our founding documents to improve upon ourselves, and rise above our egos to get things right. Jefferson called this the pursuit of "a more perfect union." Conservation policy is a marvelous expression of that ideal. The benefits to humankind and our planet in doing so are self-evident, and abundant.
But today we have a president who is a liar, a destructive fool, and a resentful braggart. He has never wanted for anything, but has never felt he had enough. He is an agent of abject and malicious cruelty, like a child who stomps on snails or tortures animals because there's no one to stop him, despite having the immense power of his office at his fingertips to be the world's greatest advocate of peace and kindness. This president is not an engaged caretaker of our special places, nor does he have any interest in being one.
It's astounding that, for a man so desperate to be loved, this president can be counted upon to make the most hateful, unpopular decision even worse by twisting his knife into groups he perceives as isolated, vulnerable, or powerless along the way. He will never make a decision that isn't utterly self-centered and based upon his most immediate need to dominate. Yet he sincerely wonders why no one likes him.
He makes absurd exaggerations and fabricates conversations, like a child, about what our mayor might have said about his border policies behind closed doors, or how many people attended his inauguration. Those who fall into his orbit are irreparably damaged, and will remain marked by their association with him for the rest of their days. That he is an insatiable, emotional black hole is transparently clear, yet so many, perhaps blinded by his alleged wealth or some other odd attraction, fail to see it.
Which brings us to today. The only way this president seems to feel he receives the respect he believes is due is by ordering the military and weapons of war to surround him like a Soviet politburo stooge. His rally saw a U.S. president break with 243 years of tradition, of resistance to indulging in empty, vain military braggadocio. Today, we have a president so emotionally insecure he can't even perceive the idea that to boast shows weakness and insecurity – two things no chief executive should ever reveal.
Whether a few tanks or a few jet flyovers, the United States – the strongest military power in the world, if that means anything – has no need to parade our might before the world in a wasteful, impotent show of force that utilizes the authoritarian May Day displays of North Korea or the Soviet Union as inspiration, even though the president argues he was inspired by Bastille Day. These displays are not, and have never been, who we are as Americans.
According to historian Michael Beschloss, who wrote a book about wartime presidents, President Eisenhower – the general who held the coalition of Western Allies together and led them to victory over Germany and Italy in World War II – had no problem reviewing military parades as a general, or reviewing formations as president when visiting military bases.
But when asked by his staff during the era of large Soviet military parades if he wanted to arrange something similar, Eisenhower said:
"To have a military parade without the end of a war or an inaugural or some big reason in Washington, D.C., that is out of our tradition."
According to Beschloss, Eisenhower also said:
"We are the preeminent power on Earth. For us, to try to imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square, would make us look weak."
Eisenhower also famously cut defense spending during his administration, something only a war-winning general could have done in the midst of the Cold War, and famously warned the nation about the military-industrial complex upon leaving office in January 1961.
But even shortly after taking office in 1953, as the Korean War was heading into its final, bloody months before a cease-fire, the 34th president said:
"The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."
Those days, of course, are very much over. Today our president insists on "rebuilding our Navy," without any awareness it is no longer 1945.
Today, what interests our president isn't doing the right thing or abiding by the rational tradition observed by individuals clearly more decent and wise than he. What interests this president is the only thing that has ever motivated him – more. The question is, who does he cheat, rob, or steal from to get more.
In the case of today's display on the National Mall, where Martin Luther King gave his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and where Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the segregated Washington, D.C., of 1939, the president spent millions in seven military flyovers, with 24 aircraft costing at least $560,000 per hour, along with a variety of "unknown costs" that the White House will probably never clarify. A Defense Department estimate for a proposed military parade last year came to $92 million, but the event was scuttled once the costs were made public.
While the "unknown costs" for the president's spectacle remain, what is known is the administration snatched $2.5 million in visitor fees from the National Park Service to fully fund the "Salute to America," even as park service officers were ordered to police the event.
An agency long-maligned by this administration, the park service relies upon visitor fees collected at NPS sites to cover the shortfall politicians of both parties fail to provide, year after year, for maintenance, visitor services, law enforcement, wildlife habitat and recreation access.
That this money is being "appropriated" from the NPS at a time when parks face a massive financial shortfall, including $12 billion in backlogged maintenance aggravated by the government shutdown earlier this year, and while the administration is actively undoing the sanctity of National Monuments even at a time of renewed interest in parks and an influx of visitors, is contemptible.
That today's self-congratulatory display is taking place at a time when children have been forcibly separated from their parents and kept in cages, devoid of the love and touch any child needs, and held in filthy, unsanitary concentration camps "housing" migrants legally seeking asylum, is similarly extraordinary and intolerable. This administration continues to undo the capability of our courts, our operating agencies, and remains dead set on pitting Americans against each other in order to enhance the president's power.
The rot that this administration has enabled, with the naked aid of a foreign power has, in two-and-a-half short years, radically altered the basic tenets of our republic and weakened our democracy to the breaking point.
So with the administration's theft of the park service budgetary supplement in mind, I would encourage you to make a trip this weekend to one of our nation's National Parks, and tell the rangers and employees and volunteers there thank you. Let them know you value them, and that you appreciate the unheralded work they do, day after day, maintaining and preserving our nation's natural and historical heritage. Say the same thing to U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel too, and those who operate our state and regional parks.
Park professionals and volunteers work every day to not only give visitors an amazing experience, but to illustrate how our nation's legacies have affected the wild and the land. They preserve our resources, highlight moments when our nation has succeeded and faltered, and simply in being there stand as one of our nation's great success stories.
Granted, this isn't the kind of success a man like our president can comprehend or appreciate. The humility that goes into declaring a place, an ecosystem, a historic site, or a vast wilderness as off limits so as to enact preservation practices is an extraordinary feat of humanity, and one that is constantly set upon by the temptation of greed, prejudice, waste, and a desire among some to whitewash our nation's mistakes and heritage – to deny history – in order for it to conform to a curious perfection aligned with certain political desires.
When visiting a National Park Service site, consider the options before you. Instead of fighting the crowds at Muir Woods National Monument on a holiday weekend, find solace, silence and an extraordinary outdoor experience to the north at Point Reyes National Seashore. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to find parking among the campers and fifth wheels at Yosemite Valley, explore the basin and range geologic province and ancient bristlecones of Great Basin National Park. Savor the view from our Cabrillo National Monument, or revel in the majestic natural churches of the Redwoods.
Take a stand and resist by going out into our woodlands and wilderness and heed, as John Muir would say, the "good tidings" of the mountains. Visit our parks and special places, and embrace our collective natural and historic heritage that our president sees only as an ATM to fund embarrassing, self-aggrandizing spectacles that subvert our nation's earned patriotism.
Visit our National Parks, and protect what's yours from those who would privatize it or steal it away from you in the dead of night. This land is your land.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.
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