A battle that has broken out over development in the Cleveland National Forest could have long-term implications.
San Diego County is proposing to allow more development on thousands of acres of privately held lands within the nationally protected forest, a plan that pits landowners and a local tribe against conservationists.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit Cleveland National Forest Foundation have raised concerns that the county's plan could fragment woodland habitat and harm threatened species.
"Urbanization does not belong in the forest," said Duncan McFetridge, co-founder of the foundation. "It would be like you drinking poison. They're in total conflict."
Supporters of the proposal argue it would allow crucial development in rural communities that want to expand basic amenities such as fire stations and water and sewer lines.
"We have a community that would like to grow to support our local businesses," said Travis Lyon, chair of the Alpine Community Planning Group and commercial real estate broker. "We'd like to see a high school. We'd like to see better parks. Without growth, you can't support this.
"You have to provide somewhat affordable housing for folks to move out to these areas. That's how you get coaches for Little League."
The county's proposal comes after a nearly two-decade ban on building more than one home for every 40 acres within the forest. A citizen ballot initiative that put the rule in place expired at the end of 2010, leaving officials open to rezone more than 71,000 acres.
More than half the proposed density under the county's plan is concentrated just east of Alpine and south of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians' reservation and casino, an area that hugs Interstate 8 to the north and south for about three miles.
For several years, Alpine residents and tribal leaders have pushed for the increased density along this section of freeway. The changes would allow mixed-use commercial and residential buildings in some sections, as well as up to one dwelling unit per acre in others.
The Viejas band, which along with the planning group lobbied county officials for the increased density, declined to comment.
County planners said the proposal, which came at the direction of elected officials, would allow density in areas with the least effect on the natural environment, such as near existing development.
"When you're closer in to the villages you have a higher density, and as you go out, it starts to feather to a lower density," said Peter Eichar, land use planner for the county.
"We have disclosed that there is an impact, and that there are only so many things we can do to mitigate those," he added.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose District 2 includes much of the East County area, including Alpine, declined to comment. In the past, supporters of the proposal have credited her with shepherding the changes forward.
The primary skepticism on the Board of Supervisors has come from Dave Roberts, its lone Democrat. In an email, he wrote: "The voters spoke clearly decades ago when they approved the forest conservation initiative. I look forward to reviewing any new information when it comes to the Board of Supervisors later this year."
Under the proposal, the number of new and existing homes allowed within the forest would increase to about 6,250, from about 4,300 under the citizen initiative. Of those, about 3,560 units could be within the Alpine area, up from about 1,180 under the initiative.
After several years of study, the proposed land-use changes, which would amend the county's general plan, look to be nearing completion. The plan is expected to go before the supervisors this summer. If the up-zoning goes through, densities in the Alpine area wouldn't be set in stone. Under a yet-to-be-funded study, planners are expected to assess the amount of development needed to help pay for basic services such as new roads and public water.
Under the proposal, about 78% of private lands within the forest would remain zoned at the same or lower densities as compared with the citizen initiative.
After the close of a comment period on a draft environmental impact report Monday, McFetridge and his supporters threatened to sue the county for allegedly failing to properly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
"They're stuck," said the Descanso woodworker, who spearheaded the citizen initiative limiting development in the forest back in 1993. "There's no way they can move forward. They're going to break the law just on the climate change alone."
The county declined to comment on the threat of such litigation.
The Sierra Club won a lawsuit in 2014 against the county after elected officials approved a climate action plan that critics said didn't include specific and enforceable strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The county agreed to pay the environmental group $1 million in legal fees and is redrafting its climate plan. The document is expected to be finished in fall 2017, a spokesperson said.
Pursuing the same legal approach, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation may seek to halt the general plan amendment for the private lands within the forest, arguing the county first needs to complete its strategy for reducing emissions.
Created by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago in part to prevent landholders in the region from over-logging and mining the area, the forest at one point covered nearly 2 million acres.
Today, the patchwork of protected lands stretches from the 91 Freeway in Orange County to Highway 94 in San Diego and totals roughly 440,000 acres of multiuse public forest.
Animals that have disappeared from the area over time include grizzly bears, kit foxes and pronghorn antelope. Wildlife now threatened by development include mountain lions, mule deer, golden eagles and California spotted owls.
Species that could be directly affected by the proposal, according to the Forest Service, include the federally listed arroyo toads, California gnatcatcher bird and San Diego thornmint plant, as well as a candidate species, the Hermes copper butterfly.
Joshua Emerson Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.