By Mia Taylor
I will forever remember election night 2016. I was sitting in a Hillcrest restaurant watching the presidential election results with a friend, when all of the sudden the tide turned. Donald Trump, the underdog, the candidate who my family and friends assured me was a long shot and would never win, was suddenly in the lead. As I continued my meal, it became abundantly clear Trump would indeed win. He would be our next president, and all the naysayers had been wrong. Thus began a four-year long, national nightmare.
Like others, I tried at first to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. I listened to those who said Trump won't be as bad as we expect. That his bark is worse than his bite. That his rhetoric would fade and he would settle into the job and adapt to the norms and expectations of his new role. As we all know now, none of those things proved true. Instead it was quite the opposite.
At every turn during the past four years, Trump revealed himself to be far worse than any of us could have ever imagined. With each passing day he outdid himself with even more abhorrent affronts and atrocities. He turned out to be a bigger bully, a more insidious criminal, a far more offensive racist, and a more ignorant human being than I for one ever imagined. His total lack of humanity, his complete absence of decency, his coddling of dictators and white supremacists and outright rejection of democracy and democratic norms grew more horrifying by the day.
As the days, weeks, months, and years of his administration passed, the nation I grew up in became less and less recognizable. And I'm quite sure I'm not alone in that sentiment. Children in cages, separated from their parents. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right groups marching in the streets and labeled "very fine people." Dictators putting bounties on the heads of American troops with no repercussions. The grift, the corruption, the lies ... it never ended.
As someone who cares deeply for the environment and wildlife, and who lays awake at night worrying about how to save everything from wolves to wild spaces, Trump's affronts turned out to be voluminous and heart wrenching.
He installed climate change deniers and individuals with zero concern for wildlife in key positions, including perhaps most notoriously, putting William Perry Pendley, a man who labeled climate change "man-made fiction" and called climate believers "kooks," in charge of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley's selection was merely one of many, many outright attacks on the environment.
Trump also weakened the EPA immeasurably and rolled back critical protections of our air and water. The environmental devastation unleased by Trump and his band of criminal cronies has been chronicled by numerous publications, but perhaps most notably in October 2020 when the Washington Post detailed the rollback of some 125 environmental safeguards. As the article pointed out:
"The [Trump] administration has allowed more pollution, drilling and logging while weakening protections for animals such as bees, bears, and birds ... over the course of nearly four years, his administration has steadily loosened oversight of polluting industries, eroded protections for endangered wildlife and stymied Obama-era efforts to address the globe's most daunting environmental threat: climate change."
Before Trump ever arrived on the scene environmentalists were fighting an uphill battle protecting nature and wildlife, and fighting climate change. Trump made every single one of those challenges more difficult. We now have an incredibly long road of recovery and rebuilding ahead of us. And the work will not be easy at any turn.
Adding insult to injury, Trump has continued his soulless, scorched earth policy until the very last moment of his repugnant administration, including the recent announcement that this administration is seeking to develop protected desert land in Southern California, opening it to mining, energy development, and broadband infrastructure.
And still he wasn't done destroying our nation on every level.
In addition to repeatedly denying and lying about the outcome of a free and fair election, and seeking to manipulate and coerce election officials across the nation in order to change the presidential election results in his favor, we all watched in horror the climax of this deranged psychopath's four years in power when his supporters violently stormed the Capitol in an attempted coup. As the world watched, our once great democracy was being undone by a wannabe dictator and his band of violent, conspiracy-believing hoodlums. The Trump-inspired insurrectionists included former members of the military and active duty police, and the entire horrific event was supported and formented by fellow GOP politicians.
In the end, five people died as a result to this sickening attack on our democracy, and still, it doesn't end. Trump insists he has done nothing wrong, and insists on departing Washington as a hero with full military fanfare.
As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton received immense criticism for describing Trump's followers at one point as deplorables. In retrospect, her comment could not have been more accurate. Not only were his followers deplorable, but so were all of his cabinet appointments, and of course, the biggest deplorable of them all is Trump himself.
As we watch today's inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, there is finally light at the end of this long, dark, tunnel. Finally, this never-ending nightmare appears to be drawing to a close and we can begin to breath a collective sigh of relief. Indeed, I have been immensely heartened by the early appointments made by the incoming administration particularly the selection of Michael Regan, North Carolina's environmental chief and a former EPA air quality specialist, who will head the EPA. Regan is the first Black man to hold this role.
I'm equally heartened by Biden's decision to tap Deb Haaland to run the Department of Interior, making her the first Native American to fill that role and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.
Let that sink in for a moment. Native Americans, a group of people who have suffered an abominable history at the hands of the white people in power, a history that has included being stripped of their rights and lands over the course of time, now have a major seat at the table.
As one supporter of Haaland's appointment noted:
"This is a deep resetting of the federal government's relationship with Native peoples, one that was built on stolen land and broken promises."
A new day has dawned indeed.
Make no mistake, our jobs as environmentalists are far from over. The work ahead of us is more critical and more pressing than ever. But today, as we end the Trump era and usher in a new administration, we do so with a sense of hope that has been completely and totally absent for four years. We start a new chapter led by a new administration that has already shown in a myriad of promising ways that it is acting from a place of far, far more noble and promising intentions.
By Tommy Hough
The happiest of New Years to you. Welcome to 2021.
Earlier today, we sent a friendly e-mail reminder to a number of our members to let them know their membership with San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action had expired at some point over the tumultuous months of 2020, or over the last several years. As the club's founding president, I can tell you it's all good and not the end of the world. Renewing on-line is easy and simple. We want you back.
As our club begins its seventh year (!), our volunteer organization is working on a more efficient and streamlined renewal process for members. And we wanted to give our expired members the opportunity to renew their membership as part of our club's New Year renewal effort.
If you're one of the lapsed members we contacted either by phone or e-mail, or both, the easiest way to do this is by going to our website and renewing your membership there. If you haven't renewed online, it's easy – but it may look a little different. Our club no longer uses Paypal to process payments. We now use a service called Wild Apricot, and to process a renewal online you may need to "start from scratch" and create a profile with the club, or find a pre-existing membership profile for you.
This profile includes fields for needed bits of information that you would typically fill in on a paper application form. As a political organization with specific state and federal guidelines we're required to adhere to, we need these particular bits of information (e.g., your occupation, etc.) for reporting purposes.
If you like, you can still mail a check and membership form the old-fashioned way to our Normal Heights post office box:
San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action
P.O. Box 16254
San Diego, CA 92176
Whether you're a new member or a renewal, please include a completed membership form with your check so we have the most up-to-date information for you for our legally-required reporting purposes.
We all hope to be at a place where we can return to in-person meetings, but in the interim renewing your membership online, or sending a check to our P.O. box, will be the easiest way to keep your membership current that not only enables you to vote on club matters, but gives you a voice in one of the biggest and most influential affinity clubs within the San Diego County Democratic Party.
As the 2020 election cycle recedes in the rearview mirror, new campaigns and contests will begin to take shape ahead of 2022 over the next several months. Your membership with San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action ensures you have that vote, and voice within the club, along with and a steady stream of related environmental news.
And as we've demonstrated with your help over the last seven years, our club sticks by its founding principles of holding elected officials and candidates accountable as we promote, and defend, policies relating to climate, land use, energy, wilderness, parks, species diversity, habitat, wildlife, transit and transportation, housing, environmental justice, clean air, clean water, and more. Plus we like to get out for hikes and visits to places like the California Wolf Center or the city's Pure Water facility, in between club meetings and issue-driven environmental reports.
Let's get you "back in the fold" with the club in 2021. Go to our website to renew your membership today – and thank you for all your support over the years we've been together. We look forward to gathering again in person soon.
By Tommy Hough and Rick Guerrero
San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action hosted our first Environmental Report on the environmental impacts of the Border Wall this past June, when our panel discussed legal efforts to stop the wall and its effect on ecosystems, watersheds, wilderness, and species in San Diego County where the wall passes through the Jacumba Mountains Wilderness and Otay Mountain Wilderness just east of Chula Vista.
Now, as mountaintops are being blown apart with high explosives atop Indigenous burial grounds along the border in Arizona to facilitate even more miles of pointless wall construction, the question of how and when our ecosystems and cultural sites will cease being desecrated and destroyed goes to the incoming Biden administration, which has offered no indication any current contracts signed for wall construction will be cancelled or even reconsidered after the 46th president is inaugurated.
Our club's second Environmental Report on the Border Wall and its related impacts is this Wednesday, Jan. 6th, via Zoom. We'll hear from Kristie Orosco, a member of the San Pasqual band of Mission Indians and the larger Kumeyaay Nation who is a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and a guest lecturer at USD, San Diego State, and Cal State San Marcos. Kristie will discuss the native biodiversity at stake along our borderlands with the wall's ongoing construction, and the Trump administration's outright dismissal of environmental requirements and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements in doing so.
We'll also hear from Dan Millis from Sierra Club Borderlands and see a portion of their presentation on the Border Wall, and its related environmental impacts throughout the southwest along the border with Mexico heading into the Sierra Club's National Day of Action on the Border Wall on Saturday, Jan. 9th.
As part of our meeting we'll also get an update on the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants and Friendship Park from Daniel Atman with Sierra Club Borderlands, who spoke at our June meeting. A question and answer forum moderated by club board members Rick Guerrero and Tommy Hough will follow presentations from all three speakers.
Join San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action this Wednesday, Jan. 6, via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. for our second Border Wall Environmental Report via Zoom.
Top photo by Daniel Watman
Bottom photo by Russ McSpadden / Center for Biological Diversity
By Cody Petterson
Regarding today's vote for San Diego City Council President, I'm going to spare all of you the dozens of pages I've written and rewritten over the last several weeks, and simply point out that this is the most consequential environmental vote that this Council will cast for the foreseeable future. One of the Councilmembers-Elect told a delegation the other day that whomever they voted for, they were still going to fight for a robust environmental and progressive agenda. The statement is self-evidently disingenuous.
The vote for council president is about setting the agenda, literally and figuratively, and it is absurd to claim that one is committed to prioritizing environmental and equity concerns while casting a vote that commits the Council to an agenda that is at best indifferent to them. This vote will determine whether efforts to protect our environment, confront the climate emergency, and foster a more equitable society face a head wind or a tail wind. It is a vote that will impact hundreds of other votes. It will have enduring consequences for our environment, and for the political futures of the voting councilmembers. As it should.
It is a vote that everyone now engaged in San Diego politics will remember, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, just as we remember, and in many ways are still living with the consequences of the Alvarez-Cole vote. The Chamber of Commerce and the BIA will remember. The POA will certainly remember and attempt to impose consequences, precisely because its leadership believes it will have persistent consequences for its members. But so too will the hundreds of organizers, activists, civic leaders, and the dozens of civil society organizations on the other side precisely because of, and in proportion to, the consequences they believe it will have for the environment, equity, and justice.
That is good. Consequences are good. The political consequences of a vote should be directly proportional to the magnitude of their impacts on the things we value. On our lives. On our families. On our world.
That is the essence of a genuine politics: to take responsibility for the broader consequences of one's decisions and actions, and to accept and weather the electoral and political consequence for oneself. Toward the end of his life, German sociologist and political economist Max Weber said, "It is immensely moving when a mature person—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of their conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. They then act by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere they reach the point where they say: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.' That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding themselves at some time in that position."
The Councilmembers will find themselves on the dais this afternoon in precisely such a position, some of them for the first time. May they think first and foremost of the consequences of their decision for our communities and our environment. May they always put the common good highest. Peace.
Photo by John Loughlin
By Tommy Hough with talking points courtesy of Frank Landis
As reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune this weekend and detailed in our club's Dec. 7th Action Alert, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife acquiesced to pressure from San Diego County to exchange, or "swap," portions of the biologically valuable and previously protected Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve for parcels within the notorious Otay Ranch Village 14 development, which our club took an official stand against last year.
In other words, at the behest of developers, the county wants to swap out portions of the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve for less biologically-valuable areas in order to BUILD on the reserve. And they're using a sympathetic audience at the state level to make it happen. That this is occurring in California, and in San Diego County, is unconscionable. We need your voices.
Rancho Jamul Estates WCB Exchange Fact Sheet (Dec. 2020)
Rancho Jamul Group Opposition Letter (Nov. 2020)
Endangered Habitats League Rancho Jamul Slideshow (Nov. 2020)
Rancho Jamul Land Exchange Sample Letter (Nov. 2020)
How to Participate in the Meeting
The vote will take place during tomorrow's special meeting of the California Wildlife Conservation Board at 8 a.m. We need you there, and we need you to make comments.
To speak at the meeting, fill out a speaker form NOW and submit it via e-mail to Wildlife Conservation Board staff member Mary Ahern at email@example.com. You'll want to make remarks regarding Item 3 on the agenda ("Rancho Jamul Land Exchange").
To dial into the meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) morning at 8 a.m., call (916) 535-0984, and use the phone conference I.D. of 871 789 882, followed by the pound sign.
To access the meeting via the web, click on the "Join Microsoft Teams Meeting" link on the agenda PDF and select an app or choose the "continue on this browser" option.
If you can't call in, e-mail and request that the board reject the proposal. Send your note to Wildlife Conservation Board director John Donnelly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Below are two sets of talking points, one from Frank Landis, and one from Renée Owens, that you can draw from for your remarks. The e-mail template you can copy and paste into a note to the board is available below.
Send this note in immediately to Wildlife Conservation Board director John Donnelly at email@example.com so it can be distributed to board members as soon as possible.
Dear Members of the Board,
I oppose the Rancho Jamul Land Exchange (Item 3 on the Dec. 8th agenda), because it would set terrible precedents for all our public lands.
It violates state statutes and California Department of fish and Wildlife (CDFW) guidelines because it would trade endangered species habitat for land that will not support the affected species. It would also "double count" already protected lands and lands used for mitigation.
When the the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) buys land for "permanent protection," the public must be able to rely on this promise that conserved means conserved in perpetuity, not set aside for future development.
Please don't approve this exchange and violate the very safeguards meant to protect our public lands.
Thank you for taking my comment.
[ YOUR NAME ]
Talking Points from Frank Landis
Remember, this is not a one-off case, and it sets a terrible precedent. If the board caves on this, there will only be more of theses cases. Trading off known endangered species habitat for a short-distance wildlife corridor that doesn't include the endangered species at risk in the first place is a terrible trade – and illegal to boot.
If the Wildlife Conservation Board and related agencies stand together with allies in the environmental community rather than breaking ranks, the case for overturning the project grows. The land swap only looks good if one assumes the developer will win the litigation.
The new, majority-Democratic San Diego County Board of Supervisors will likely have to hear at least part of this case again if the Wildlife Conservation Board doesn't approve the deal.
That the California Department of Fish and Wildlife succumbed to pressure from the County of San Diego and agreed to exchange portions of the biologically valuable, and already protected, Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve for parcels within the Otay Ranch Village 14 area has facilitated the development, and was central to its approval by the Board of Supervisors.
The ecological reserve was initially purchased with public funds for "permanent preservation." State Law requires that ecological reserve lands can only be exchanged for lands of equal or greater value. Unfortunately, the CDFW's own analysis demonstrates that the land being offered is inferior to what is being given up.
The parcel that's been given up supports the endangered Quino Checkerspot Butterfly, among other species, and the exchange parcel lacks the soil and vegetation needed to support Quino Checkerspots. Therefore, this swap also violates CDFW guidelines in prohibiting loss of endangered species habitat.
Attempting to justify the exchange, the CDFW is double-counting as benefits lands already protected by the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP), and lands that would be used as project mitigation. And that outcome would transfer development into the middle of a wildlife corridor – that is completely unacceptable.
This exchange would set disastrous precedents for all public lands, as it means that all ecological reserves are potentially under threat and are simply placeholders if the right political pressure is applied to the CDFW. If the land exchange is denied, better solutions can be achieved, because the incoming Board of Supervisors will have to hear at least some part of the project again.
Top photo courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum
Bottom photo courtesy of Earth Discovery Institue
By Tommy Hough
We hope you can join us this Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 6:30 p.m. for Packs Under Attack, the first of our new "Dems. Gone Wild" Environmental Report webinars dedicated to topics of wildlife conservation.
Facilitated by club member and wildlife advocate Brandon Coopersmith, and featuring guests from the California Wolf Center in Julian and my Oregon Wild colleague Rob Klavins, Packs Under Attack will focus on the ongoing plight of American Gray Wolves and Mexican Wolves in the U.S.
Brandon and myself, along with many of our club members and those active in environmental and conservation spaces, have grave concerns about what could be a calamitous winter for wolves given the Trump administration's cruel, needless move to remove wolves from the protections they've had under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act for the last 45 years.
In what was essentially a desperate Hail Mary to win over voters in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan ahead of the November election, the legacy of wolves in the Lower 48 states were subjugated to preserve the legacy of Donald J. Trump. And while Trump may have lost the election, wolves have more to lose.
Fueled by bloodlust and ancient European superstitions, wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century from California to the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes. Wolf populations were further reduced due to development, agricultural expansion, and the destruction of habitat and the killing of the wolf's main prey species, like the American bison.
Beginning in 1995 in Yellowstone National Park, gray wolves were reintroduced into the wild in the contiguous U.S., and over the last 25 years have returned to many of their historic habitats, most notably crossing to the west side of the Cascade Range with the arrival of Oregon wolf OR-7 ("Journey") in California in 2012. Only later did we learn OR-7 wasn't the only wolf to make the "journey" beyond the Cascade passes into northernmost California.
Register now via Zoom for this special "Dems. Gone Wild" Environmental Report.
Coming up, our January edition of Dems. Gone Wild will be a Zoom presentation on Jan. 13 titled Monarchs: A Royal Crisis, featuring Monarch butterfly advocate Victoria Abrenica of The Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon, and formerly with Ocean Connectors. In February we'll focus on the perilous future of bats in Flying Under the Radar. Details on both environmental reports will be posted soon.
In the meantime, we'll see you this Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. for Packs Under Attack.
By Cody Petterson
There is no risk of exaggerating the importance of Joe Biden's election victory over Donald Trump. The Trump administration has been an environmental calamity of Biblical proportion for our communities, our climate, and the natural world, and his defeat is a collective act of national and global deliverance.
The challenges that remain before us are staggering. Like a community waking up the morning after a hurricane, we have years of work ahead repairing the devastation the last four years have wrought. Renewing our commitment to global cooperation on greenhouse gas reduction, reinstituting endangered species and habitat protections, restoring our conservation hertiage and national treasures to their protected status, halting and reversing the privatization of our public lands, reaffirming the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, redirecting environmental investment to the communities of concern most impacted by climate change and pollution. The list is endless.
Many in the environmental and climate communities supported Democratic primary candidates who advocated more aggressive climate action, including a fracking ban and a Green New Deal. It falls to all of us to support President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in their efforts to advance meaningful environmental legislation and policy, and to maintain unflagging pressure on their administration to accelerate and deepen our national response to the climate emergency.
We are hopeful, we are mindful of the challenges ahead, but above all else, on this day of national deliverance, we share with our communities a profound sense of relief, and joy.
Photos by Tommy Hough
By Cody Petterson
It's hard to believe, but we're finally on the eve of the 2020 general election. The San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action have been heavily involved throughout the current election cycle.
We were at the center of the Democratic primary in communities across our region, and nearly all of our endorsed candidates advanced to the general election, including Joe LaCava, Stephen Whitburn, Marni Von Wilpert, Raul Campillo, Toni Atkins, Chris Ward, Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, Steve Padilla, Mike Levin, and Terra Lawson-Remer.
While the pandemic has prevented us from hitting the pavement with the same intensity as previous years and previous cycles, our members have continued to phonebank, text, drop literature, and host virtual fundraisers. Our club's endorsements have likewise played prominent roles in campaigns across the county, including the campaigns of our most recently endorsed candidates, Teresa Acosta, Mark Gracyk, Mark West, and Samm Hurst.
Our club and its members have an enormous stake in the outcome of the presidential election, but our stake in these local contests is just as profound. The future of land use, climate action, habitat conservation and restoration, biodiversity, equity, and shared prosperity and opportunity in our region depends on these elections. The race for County District 3, in particular, will decide the majority on our Board of Supervisors and dramatically impact our club's priorities.
We encourage you to support our endorsed candidates on Nov. 3rd and commit with us to holding our elected officials accountable to the environment, and to our children and grandchildren, in the coming term. We hope you and your families are healthy and thriving, and we hope to see you at our next virtual club meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 18th. And we look forward to the day when the COVID pandemic is behind us and we can once again meet in person and embrace.
Photo by Tommy Hough
Note: This piece does not reflect an official position of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action board, though many of our board members share the sentiment expressed here by club president Cody Petterson.
By Cody Petterson
Measure E is a classic "San Diego Special," i.e. a pure giveaway to land speculators, wealthy landowners, and developers, with none of the billions of dollars of upzoning windfall captured by the public. Bring it back with equity upfront, with a significant portion of the increase in land value captured by the public, and you'll earn my vote in spite of my modest concerns about the precedent set by the modification to the 30 ft. coastal height limit. Vote No on Measure E.
Measure E proposes to remove the 30 ft. coastal height limit from San Diego's 1,324 acre Midway-Pacific Highway Community Plan Area. Height limits on the affected parcels would revert to those stipulated in the community and general plans. While in principle I don't object to the removal of the 30 ft. height limit in the Midway-Pacific Highway Zone, I oppose any upzoning that doesn't capture for the public a significant portion of the land value windfall thus provided to property owners.
This is not a partisan issue. It's a public interest issue. I encourage San Diegans to vote No on Measure E because it violates a principle that I consider fundamental: the equity must come up front. The promise to circle back later to make an inequity right is a false promise. The public benefit must come as a condition of private benefit, not an afterthought. The many should guarantee their collective benefits prior to agreeing to provide extravagant benefits to the wealthy few.
An Old Story
The idea that the first step to solving our affordable housing crisis — which is, above all else, the inability of wage-earners to afford the price of the assets in which they must live — is to give asset owners, land speculators, and developers a titanic upzoning windfall and then try, on a project-by-project basis, to claw back at some later date a meager public benefit, is so preposterous that it wouldn't deserve rejoinder, except for the fact that it is the prevailing faux solution to our affordable housing crisis.
This is not, of course, a modern exception. Giving large land owners and speculators enormous windfalls at the public expense has been the dominant feature of San Diego's development history since the city's inception (for an excellent detailing of that history and dynamic, read "Under the Perfect Sun"). Measure E blends seamlessly with two centuries of land speculation, rent-seeking, and "civic-minded" swindles.
What Are People Saying
Let's start by conceding what ought to be conceded. Interstate 5 was a simple, albeit imperfect way of delineating the city's coastal zone, and the Midway-Pacific Highway area would arguably not have been included had a more careful line been drawn. Preserving the 30 ft. height limit in the Midway district zone is not, per se, a hill I would care to die on. Many of the opponents of Measure E argue, however, that removing the limit in the Midway would set a precedent that could threaten its removal in other areas within the coastal zone, or the elimination of the height limit altogether.
Despite the dismissal of these concerns by supporters of E, it's difficult to imagine that a vote to strike down the 30 ft. height limit in the Midway wouldn’t disinhibit to some degree future amendments to the limit. How significant would this disinhibiting effect be? It's impossible to say, but I believe the effect could easily shave a few percentage points off the opposition to subsequent amendments. Is that enough to disqualify it in my eyes? Well, it depends on how significant, or negligible, the countervailing public benefits might be.
Proponents have made several interrelated claims about the measure's purported public benefits, including that it will 1.) ease our housing crisis, 2.) provide desperately needed additional residential capacity in our general plan, and 3.) reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of these, I believe only the third has genuine merit.
Not a Housing Crisis, But an Affordable Housing Crisis
With regard to the first point, and this can't be emphasized enough, we don't have a housing crisis in San Diego, we have an AFFORDABLE HOUSING crisis, which Measure E does nothing to address. The city of San Diego has exceeded its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) target for "above moderate" housing for decades running at 120 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) and above. Through 2019, construction starts for above moderate housing in San Diego had already exceeded (107 percent) the 2010-2020 RHNA allocation, with a year remaining in the cycle. "Very low and "low" income starts, however, were at 13 percent and 17 percent of RHNA targets respectively.
Most alarming of all, however, was the failure to produce "moderate" income housing, which came in at jaw-dropping .2 percent of the RHNA target (just 34 of 15,462 units allotted). And the only reason why "very low" and "low" aren't similarly abysmal is because the taxpaying public covers nearly the entire cost of the affordability gap with subsidies like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Which is to say, the market can't produce housing that is affordable to any family making less than 120 percent AMI.
To the extent that it is produced, WE, the taxpaying public, produce it. Certainly, without substantial changes to our city's meager 10 percent inclusionary housing policy, the Midway district redevelopment promises to be at best another vibrant, upper-middle class utopia. And Measure E includes no provisions whatsoever to tie resulting increases in land value to equity for the public.
No Shortage of Residential Capacity in the Plan
Now let's talk about the second claim, that Measure E and the Midway redevelopment will provide desperately needed additional residential capacity. Contrary to the claims of developers and their paid mouthpieces, San Diego has more than enough additional capacity in our community plans to sustain infill residential growth for the foreseeable future. In fact, the city's own Housing Element estimates that we have nearly 175,000 units of additional capacity in our plan, roughly 72,000 of it at planned densities of 30+ units per acre, much of it around transit or along arterials.
Unfortunately, many of these parcels are in areas of the city in which it has been difficult for developers to make residential and vertical mixed-use projects pencil out without public subsidy, and upzoning these areas has thus largely failed to produce substantial additional residential density. To understand why this is, it's useful to reflect on what makes properties valuable.
First off, it's a bit of a gloss to say that zoning "gives" value to properties. Properties are given value by the access they provide to desirable natural (beaches, lakes, rivers, forests, uranium deposits), private (restaurants, stores, office complexes, hospitals), and public (roads, parks, schools, libraries, train stations) amenities (or, put another way, by the effective demand for these amenities). America is covered with vast tracts of land made nearly worthless by their lack of amenities desirable to housing consumers. It doesn't matter if these parcels in the middle of nowhere are zoned for residential, commercial, or industrial uses, or if they have 30 ft. or 3,000 ft. height limits; there just aren't sufficient nearby amenities to attract buyers or renters at prices that would generate returns adequate to justify investment.
In a location like Midway-Pacific Highway, however, there are more than enough natural, private, and public amenities nearby to provide ample returns on mid- and high-rise residential and commercial development. This particular circumstance — in which restrictive zoning in amenities-rich areas creates vast sums of pent-up land value — is precisely what motivates measures like E. The goal of upzoning efforts like Measure E is specifically to "crack" zoning regulations to get at the amenities-value pent up in the affected parcels.
Now, to be clear — so long as the community, equity, and ecological co-benefits are substantial, I'm not opposed in principle to efforts to realize these pent-up amenities values. Measure E, however, doesn't even make a show of balancing private profit and public good.
In relation to the purported environmental benefits of Measure E, there's some reason to give it the benefit of the doubt. Some friends in the environmental movement have expressed support for the measure because it may facilitate transit-supportive infill development. Certainly, one can imagine that removal of the limit might foster the transition to a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood within walkable or bikeable proximity to the Old Town Station and, to a lesser extent, the Washington Street and Middle Town stops.
Honestly, a walkable, transit-supportive vertical mixed-use neighborhood in the amenities-rich heart of the City is probably enough to outweigh my concerns about the disinhibiting effect such a vote would have on the 30 ft. limit more broadly, provided the public obtained a substantial portion of the land value released by its upzoning, which, again, in the case of Measure E, it does not.
Nothing from the Delta
And this is the core of my objection to Measure E, and to all similar attempts to deregulate real estate development: I fiercely oppose any measure or ordinance that would give massive upzoning windfalls to large property owners, land speculators, and developers, while obtaining nothing for the public in return. This is not a difficult concept. I could explain it to my four-year-old son without difficulty. An elected official who acts as though they can't understand this is either uncommonly stupid, extraordinarily lazy, or willfully betraying the public good.
Go ahead and Google "land value capture." First hit: "Land value capture enables communities to recover and reinvest land value increases that result from public investment and other government actions. Also known as land value return, it's rooted in the notion that public action should generate public benefit." Measure E would dramatically increase the market values of the affected parcels. This is well-understood by the proponents of the measure. Because, however, their objective is not to obtain for the public a significant portion of the value thus created — because the interests they serve are those of the wealthy few rather than San Diego's working majority — their measure fails to capture any of that value for the public in the form of affordable housing, revenue, infrastructure, parks, etc.
When I pointed this out in a community forum, Councilmember Campbell, who brought the proposed measure before council, countered feebly and disingenuously that the public would obtain benefit through the development process itself, presumably through things like impact fees and inclusionary policy (the latter of which she has, in the past, characterized as robust, but which is in fact extremely meager here in San Diego). While it's true that future projects would be governed by existing development policy, which obtains some public benefits, and that we might be able to claw some additional public value if a project requires discretionary approval for some other reason, this misses the entire point of my critique: the value that is lost to the public through Measure E is the change in land value that accrues to the owner at the time of the zoning change.
What is lost is the potential for the public to benefit from the delta between the value under the current height limit and the value once the height limit is removed. The best way to grasp this distinction is to recognize that the public could easily gain both a significant portion of the change in land value and a portion of any resulting development profits.
Market-rate development advocates will counter that developers need these windfalls to make their projects sufficiently profitable to warrant investment. But here's the problem with that argument: the developer undoubtedly "needs" the increase in zoned capacity (floor-area ratio, height, setbacks, etc.) to make projects pencil out, but unless they're lucky enough to own the property prior to the passage of this measure, or to have acquired the property in anticipation of compelling the public to cough up an upzoning windfall, they will have to pay the current owner a land price that reflects the new height limit.
It is the landowner — the relatively unproductive rent farmer, the rentier much hated by classical economists — who will derive the lion's share of the billions of dollars of upzoning windfall. The property owner may "need" a portion of that windfall to motivate them to sell to a developer rather than continue merely performing routine maintenance and extracting exorbitant rents. Which is why the public should demand less than the entirety of the value it is liberating; say, in a spirit of extravagant generosity, 50 percent, which would leave the landowners with a hefty reward for their total lack of investment and labor in acquiring the zoning windfall.
It's not quite fair to say "total lack of investment and labor," since some landowners have played active roles in obtaining the windfall. Rent-seeking and regulatory capture do require some investment and labor, after all. Our government is not going to sell itself. I'm sure folks have already glanced at the Form 460s to get an idea of who is funding the measure and who might therefore be presumed to benefit most directly from it. Roughly 80 percent ($402,000) of the total for the Yes on Measure E campaign was donated by Brookfield Properties. This is a complete mystery, unless one expends the effort to type "Brookfield Properties San Diego" into a Google search field, and scroll down to this: "A City of San Diego selection committee has picked a proposal by Brookfield Properties and ASM Global to redevelop the Sports Arena property into a mix of entertainment, housing, parks, and office and retail."
Hmm, didn't see that one coming.
But surely the other campaign donors are disinterested, civic-minded folk. Let's see, $9,999 from Orchard I and Orchard II. Orchard, what's that? Orchard Active Senior Living — oh, that's interesting — located at Hancock and Spor…ahhh, there it is. Alright, let's check out another. Kiffman Properties, $10,000. Helmut Kiffman, San Diego investor, owner of Rosecrans Plaza, 3146-3156 Sports Arena Blvd. Purchased for $24 million in 2012. Looks like its zoning designation is Commercial Community-3-6, which gives a 60 ft. underlying height limit. What do you think the return on investment is on a $10,000 campaign contribution that raises the height limit from 30 to 60 ft. on a parcel at the intersection of Rosecrans, Sports Arena, and the Camino del Rio off-ramp? As they say, not bad work if you can get it.
Even this extravagant windfall, however, dramatically underestimates the pent-up land value that the measure will unlock. One of the central canards of the Measure E proponents is that the measure will not alter the underlying zoning and that height limits will simply revert to those currently in the community plan. While this is technically true, it is a bald-faced lie at the level of intention. The reason this measure is coming before voters at all is because the 1972 height limit was established by voters, and therefore can only be removed by voters.
But the corollary is rarely mentioned: the coastal height limit is the only element of the zoning that can't be altered by the Miday planning group and city council. So while it is true that this measure doesn't alter the underlying zoning, it would remove the only impediment to the city council altering the underlying zoning at their sole discretion.
Yes, the removal of the coastal height limit on a parcel with a planned zoning designation of CC-1-3 (1 DU per 1,500 square feet, .75 floor area ration, 45 ft. height limit) would not dramatically increase density. But it would give the community planning group, city council, and the mayor a free hand to alter the zoning designations (including the height limit) and thus radically increase the planned density.
To reiterate, I'm not personally opposed in principle to the transformation of the Midway district, but I consider the municipal government a representative of my interests and, more to the point, of the interests of all working San Diegans, and I'll be damned if I let wealthy commercial property owners steal billions of dollars of land value to which the public is entitled. Or, worse, if we the public are forced to backfill the revenue thus lost in order to fund the city's provision of basic services.
Rent-Seeking and Regulatory Capture
Now, anyone with any knowledge of municipal shenanigans can identify this as rent-seeking and regulatory capture, pure and simple. But it's useful to ask, who are the regulators these rent-seekers are attempting to capture? Well, councilmembers Campbell and Cate, of course, who brought the measure before council (thank you to councilmembers Gómez and Bry for their No votes). A councilmember who cared about their community would never have carried this measure without ensuring that the public — their constituents, the people who pay their salary and whom they purport to serve — obtained a significant portion of the value thus created.
But, more importantly, the captured regulators are us, the voters. These developers and large owners put $5,000, $10,000, $400,000 into blowing sunshine up the public posterior, and we give them a land value windfall of 100 to 1,000 times their investment. And we the public demand nothing in return. We don't even recognize what we’ve given them, or what we've lost, or what we could have — should have — demanded in return, or what WE will have to pay to backfill the revenue hole that is left by demanding no equity, no public benefit, no land value capture. Or that we will have to go without the services that we could have obtained with that revenue. WE are the regulators that these developers and large landowners are attempting to capture.
Vote NO on Measure E
San Diegans have the opportunity to remedy this impending inequity, to rescue themselves from this humiliating failure of fiduciary responsibility to themselves, their families, and their communities. They can vote No on E. They can tell councilmembers Campbell and Cate, the real estate industry, the large landowners, the developers, the Building Industry Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and all their mercenaries: "Come back with a deal that gives the public the portion to which it is entitled." That's not a radical message.
The public liberates value with its zoning decisions, it is in a position to demand a fair portion of that value, and the failure to obtain that portion forces it to backfill the city's budget with other revenue or to forego services. This is not a difficult or revolutionary concept. It's the commonest of sense. "Give us our cut or pound sand." Vote NO on Measure E.
Just a reminder to join us this Saturday morning, Oct. 10, at 9 a.m. as our club co-hosts a "no knock" lit. drop for Stephen Whitburn for San Diego City Council, whose campaign for the District 3 seat being vacated by Chris Ward was one of the first races our club considered in this election cycle.
We'll meet at 9 a.m. at Bird Park Playground in Morley Field near North Park at 2705 Upas St. (San Diego, 92104). Can we count on you to join us?
Stephen understands our concerns about wildfire, sprawl, transit, clean air, clean water, and pushing our city to reach its Climate Action Plan goals. Stephen also sees the opportunity with ReWild Mission Bay, the concern of residents over ongoing lead fuel pollution from light aircraft at our regional airports, and he understands Balboa Park needs to be restored and its historic structures and qualities left intact.
We hope you'll join us for our club's lit. drop for Stephen on Saturday morning, Oct. 10. If you'd like to do so, please RSVP on our Facebook page.
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