WCB Votes Down Otay Ranch Village 14 Land Swap
By Frank Landis, CNPS San Diego Chapter Conservation Chair
Want some good news for a change? This week the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) voted 5-0-1 to deny a hugely controversial deal between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and developers to swap 219 acres of land in the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve for land of lesser ecological value held by the developer. This was a huge win in the fight against the development known as Adara or Otay Ranch Village 14.
This decision had big implications beyond the immediate land in question. Had the deal passed, we were deeply concerned that no ecological reserve (ER) in California would be safe from future development pressure.
In the WCB meeting, I was one of more than a hundred speakers from over 50 environmental groups, biologists, lawyers, former agency personnel, and many others. Over the course of three hours, most of the speakers blasted the swap, calling it a hideous precedent, questioning the science, the law and the very need for the development. More than a hundred written comments received prior to the meeting ran 3:1 against the swap. At least 30 of those comments came from CNPS members throughout the state.
Ecological reserves are the most precious and protected class of lands owned by CDFW. This parcel is home to the federally endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly, while the exchanged parcel contained no suitable habitat for the species. By law, ecological reserve lands can only be swapped for properties of equal or higher ecological value.
WCB evaluates all proposed CDFW land swaps. While it has approved previous ER land swaps, none match the scale or controversy of this one, and none have involved a private development project. The private developer and the County of San Diego negotiated the swap with the wildlife agencies to keep long-running agency opposition to the project from ending up in court. Their agreement helped win approval of the development project by San Diego Supervisors in 2019.
Special thanks to WCB Board member and former state senator Fran Pavley who expressed concern about how the precedent of approving the swap would encourage future developers to bypass environmental laws on the most protected lands in the state. “I want Californians to trust WCB action in the future,” she said.
CDFW Director Chuck Bonham helped negotiate the deal with the developer and the agencies. While he is also chair of the WCB, he recused himself from the vote. He testified that he was concerned that, “In the absence of the exchange, the developer will build the larger, more dispersed, more impactful project.”
That future is far from certain. CNPS, along with Endangered Habitats League, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity all sued to decertify the Project, and WCB’s action strengthens the case. Moreover, the development’s layout and environmental impacts are now in question, so the Project will likely be revisited by the San Diego Supervisors in 2021. In the November election, the mix of supervisors swung in favor of the environment with all three Democrats now on the Board coming out against the project.