(AR) SAN DIEGO -- A land use plan that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls "the latest and best example of a new era in American conservation" is being criticized by the local leader of the opposition as "an attempt by the federal government to take over land use from local governments."
San Diego's Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) would set aside 172,000 acres of prime developable land (including 55,200 acres within San Diego city limits and the rest in the unincorporated part of San Diego County) and make it off-limits to development, while completely eliminating environmental concerns for for builders in the rest of the county.
But it could also cost residents of the city and county between $260 to $360 million to buy 27,000 acres of the land that is not owned by governments or being donated by developers and land owners in order to get free rein elsewhere.
Mayor Susan Golding, a moderate Republican, has strongly pushed the plan.
"Balancing our economy with the protection of the environment is the way of the future, and if we do not figure out how to work together, we will not survive," she has said in public statements.
The MSCP is a model Babbitt wants to apply to the rest of the country. He has called the "no surprises" plan -- meaning it presents development interests with no surprises when they want to build outside the plan area in the city or county -- "the jewel of habitat conservation plans." It is opposed by both environmental activists and conservative Republicans, including the Chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and supported by the moderate Golding.
The agreement is due to be signed by the city, state and federal governments next month.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm shouting alone," said Bill Horn, chairman of the five-seat County Board of Supervisors here. The rest of the powerful board is supporting the plan, but Horn opposes it as an assault on private property and taxpayer rights.
A cornerstone of the plan is that state and federal wildlife agencies have agreed not to return repeatedly to demand new land or other offsets to protect individual endangered species. Centrists environmentalists see that as a practical way to approach the thorny issue of conservation vs. property rights, and many San Diego-area builders have signed on to the idea. It includes many of the most sensitive habitats in one omnibus approach, but a few, such as the Chula Vista mint -- one of 200 species on the endangered list in growth-oriented San Diego Co. -- are not included, and that uspets environmentalists who oppose the plan.
It frees up the remaining land for development, with local jurisdictions having a permit from the state and federal governments to authorize development without regard for species habitat.
The plan was created
by an historic cooperative effort between the city, state and federal governments, conservationist groups such as the Sierra Club and representatives of the building industry.
However, says Horn, the plan does not provide for consultation with those who would pay for it: the taxpayers.
"Show me the money!" he exclaims, borrowing a phrase from the movie "Jerry Maguire." Horn asks who will foot the bill for buying 27,000 acres and taking it off the tax rolls.
"Who pays the price?" he asks. "The land owner. Who doesn't get to vote? The land owner. It's your land, your money and your vote and you need to vote on it," he argued.
A cornerstone of Horn's opposition is his insistence that residents of the city and county should be allowed to vote on the proposal.
"Without funding, the plan will not be a reality," Mayor Golding has said. "The federal and state governments have agreed to contribute 50 percent of the acquisition needed for the preserve. The remaining 50 percent will be provided by the city and other local sources."
"Show me the money!" he repeated. "Prop. 218 and Prop. 13 were votes of the people demanding to have a vote on government expenditures. When you are going to spend this kind of money without a vote you are ignoring the will of the people. That's the reason the San Diego Taxpayers Assn. gave the Golden Fleece Award to the city for this proposal."
California has been at the forefront of citizen-sponsored initiatives (Prop. 218 and Prop. 13) to take many areas of public financing out of the hands of elected representatives and return it to the taxpayers.
A spokesman for Golding said the details of the funding have not been finalized, and won't be until a task force assigned to look at the city's options offers its recommendations later this month.
There could be a variety of sources, the mayor's spokesman says, including money that was once earmarked for environmental mitigation for local projects and no longer needed for that.
The mayor might also support putting some of the city's portion of funding the purchase on the ballot, the spokesman said.
However, one point the mayor makes is that a lot of money will be generated when people are able to use their property without having to wait what she said was an average of seven years to get the approval of environmental regulatory agencies.
"The whole purpose behind the MSCP is that property owners will be able to use a portion of their property more quickly," said a spokesman for the Mayor.
who is said to have ambitions to run for the U.S. Senate, has found the national spotlight focused on the MSCP and her administration's promotion of it. So far, the great majority of the press generated by the plan has been positive.
But now the opposition is starting to get some attention.
Horn has been interviewed by the New York Times and ABC News. Last week he and Mayor Golding debated the issue on the NBC Nightly News.
Horn may have political ambitions of his own, over and above the local county issue. He has visited Washington D.C. before, testifying before Congress on the issue of local control of welfare reform. There are some who think he's aiming at a congressional seat and that a combative stance on a hot-button issue like the "taking" of private property could launch a new career on the national scene.
None, however, doubt Horn's sincerity on the issue of property rights, which he fought for as a farmer before he entered politics with support from agricultural and real estate interests.
In addition to his other objections to the plan, Horn has accused the federal government of supporting the plan because it will give it a wedge for entry into the regulation of land use matters at the local level, such as zoning and density.
"It's really not an endangered species issue, it's a land control issue. You really won't find many endangered species in these areas, and the ones you do find are provided for in other locations in the county."
Although most of the land affected by the MSCP is in the city of San Diego, some is in the unincorporated part of the county, which Horn's board controls. He is alone in his opposition to it, but thinks a broader airing may help generate "flak" that will attract support from other members of the historically conservative body. His website (http://www.billhorn.com) offers a press release on the NBC appearance and arguments against the idea. For now, though, the other supervisors seem inclined to try to avoid the vast urban sprawl that is typified by its giant, troubled neighbor to the north, Los Angeles County by preserving the vast tract and its diverse endangered species.
Horn doesn't blame Mayor Golding and the city for the MSCP proposal as much as he does Congress for not rewriting environmental laws.
"MSCP is our response to the Endangered Species Act, which, honestly, needs to be rewritten. That's something this Congress needs to do and hasn't done. They need to protect the private property rights and the voters' rights. It really boils down to where you, the voter, are willing to give up your liberty," he says. His web page provides links to the Endangered Species Reform Act, a bill now plodding through Congress.
"The MSCP is being sold as a park, yet they are not going to allow people in there. This is not a recreation issue. This is land that the public does not own.
"This is being touted as the way of the future, but this country was founded on the idea that people could own land and that it could not be taken from them without just compensation," says Horn. The eminent domain aspects of the plan are not clear, however, either in the plan or in the highly supportive Sunday New York Times Op-Ed piece about it last month, or even on Horn's site.
"The real problem with MSCP is that it's a punitive plan, not a proactive one," Horn says. "It encourages people who have these species on their land to get rid of them before they are counted. It has a tremendous economic negative and no proven effectiveness as far as environmental issues."
Horn is starting to get inquiries from potential allies all over the country, as it appears that San Diego's plan may be the way that the federal government will approach this problem in other states. If that's the case, then Horn might well find himself propelled into national prominence.
Albion Monitor April 25, 1997 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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