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Fight on to Save Unspoiled Mesa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Dave Hogan enrolled at Torrey Pines High School in 1984, the campus was way out in the country on a narrow two-lane road filled with potholes. During his four years in high school, the natural terrain around the campus was turned into an instant city--North City West.

Now a 21-year-old college student, Hogan is fighting--and making progress against--a major developer’s plans to plow under a bit of that landscape.

Carmel Mountain, a 300-acre mesa, is one of the last untouched spots within the fast-growing planned community and has been identified by the state as one of the 20 sites in California richest in its diversity of wildlife and native plant species.

The principal landowner, Pardee Construction Co., is applying for a permit to grade and farm part of the 400-foot-high Carmel Mountain as a forerunner to the construction of a single-family housing subdivision known as Neighborhood 8A.

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In past years, it was far easier to get permission to grade land for farming than for building. No environmental reports or public hearings were required for agriculture.

As a result, environmentalists say, developers would hire growers to farm the land and grade it into building sites. Once the natural terrain had been plowed under or graded away by growers, environmentalists said, they found their protests against destruction of native vegetation and wildlife habitat came too late.

When the city of San Diego adopted a resource protection ordinance in 1989, it required city environmental analysts to evaluate the property and the potential damage that an agricultural operation could cause. In most cases, the applicant must present an environmental impact report.

The 2-year-old ordinance gave Hogan a chance to do what previous opponents of grading had no chance to do in other areas of the county--fight the development on environmental grounds, protest at public hearings and take other steps to preserve the spot.

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“It is the most sensitive unprotected piece of land along the coast,” said Hogan, a part-time student majoring in ecology at Palomar College. “It’s like Torrey Pines Reserve. It’s irreplaceable.”

Local environmentalists raised the hue and cry about Pardee’s plans to develop the sensitive site and began petition drives and telephone campaigns to oppose Pardee. Hogan, who now lives in Julian, took the fight higher, applying for funds to acquire the land as an ecological preserve and recruiting major environmental groups--Sierra Club and Friends of Penasquitos Canyon Preserve.

“He’s been galloping around like Paul Revere around here, yelling that the British are coming,” one member of the city Planning Department staff said. “Until he started making waves last fall, we didn’t know what was going down.”

Mike Kelly, president of the Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, also gave Hogan credit.

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“He’s been the driving force behind the effort to save that mesa for almost two years now. He’s been the spark plug that really got things going,” Kelly said.

Perhaps most importantly, Hogan has gotten Sacramento’s attention, and the state now is considering acquiring the site.

Terri Stewart, state wildlife biologist, thinks that Carmel Mountain has a very good chance of being one of the sites chosen by the state’s new Natural Heritage Program for protection from development.

Stewart said the Carmel Mountain site “has been evaluated and has been ranked as one of 20 that are the best in the state.”

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An inch-thick analysis prepared by Hogan with the aid of other environmentalists and verified by the state Department of Fish and Game extols the mountain’s diversity of plant and animal life: California gnatcatchers, which the federal government is proposing to put on its endangered-species list; golden eagles and half a dozen other protected raptors that nest on Carmel Mountain; bobcats; mule deer; foxes; coyotes and mountain lions.

There are tiny orange-throated whiptail lizards with bright blue tails, coast horned toads and silvery legless lizards.

There are also vernal pools, now reduced to 4% of their original numbers statewide; coastal sage scrub; Del Mar manzanita; short-leaved dudleya, a state-listed endangered plant; coast barrel cactus; Del Mar Mesa sand asters and a handful of others on the federal candidate list for protection.

There is even a breeding colony of Monarch butterflies that migrate to the coastal mesa.

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The DFG report recommends a 250-acre acquisition--including Pardee’s Neighborhood 8A--as part of a wildlife corridor linking the protected Penasquitos Canyon to the south with the proposed San Dieguito River Valley Regional Open Space Park to the north.

The plateau of the mountain, actually a mesa, is the only untouched refuge remaining in the 3,400 acres of North City West--recently renamed Carmel Valley. Elsewhere, the stands of eucalyptus and pine are gone, the hills have been leveled and the valleys filled.

Chuck Corum, Pardee planning director of the firm’s Carmel Valley development, said efforts to develop a single-family residential neighborhood on the mesa have been before city planners for “at least four or five years,” and the Pardee application for an agricultural permit was filed about a year ago.

Pardee, he said, plans “dryland, organic farming on about 120 acres of our property.” No pesticides will be used, he said, and “some sort of grain crops or soybeans will be raised.”

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Ultimately, however, Pardee will turn to its primary purpose--building homes on the mesa, Corum said: “We are pursuing our development plans for Neighborhood 8A.”

The development firm has owned the land since the mid-1960s, Corum said, and “we feel that we should get some interim use out of it until our precise plan is processed.”

Of the state’s acquisition plans and the site’s high rating as an ecological preserve, Corum said, “We’ve only heard rumors.”

Linda Michael, land-use chairman for the Sierra Club, called the Pardee agricultural permit request “a sham,” one of many developers’ actions designed to “destroy every bit of sensitive habitat around” before federal officials rate the gnatcatcher as an endangered species.

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“We’re opposed to the Pardee agricultural permit,” Michael said, “and concerned that the land not be disturbed.”

Diana Snodgrass, one of the leaders of a petition campaign against the Carmel Mountain development, said the group has obtained about 700 signatures opposing the Pardee agriculture permit, “and many of the people who signed have never been up there. They just knew what had been happening all around here and knew they didn’t want that to happen here.”

The Pardee proposal has stirred up dust in the offices of Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose district includes Carmel Valley and the nearby northern city area. Wolfsheimer aide Joe Gabaldon said that “numerous phone calls, almost all opposed,” have come in to the councilwoman.

Wolfsheimer “has not taken a position on this matter,” Gabaldon said, “because the issue hasn’t come before the council yet.”

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Pardee’s application for agricultural and grading permits for Carmel Mountain came up before a city hearing officer on Sept. 18 but a decision was postponed indefinitely because Pardee has yet to complete a required environmental impact report.

Hogan is pleased with the delay and hopes it will give him time to make more progress with DFG and the local Clean Water Program.

Meanwhile, he has linked up with Michael Conrad, a Rancho Penasquitos community planner who is seeking to preserve an entire network of open space corridors through the North City area, to make a presentation to the San Diego Clean Water Program, a relatively new city agency with a court-ordered mandate to upgrade and expand the metropolitan sewer system that serves much of the county.

Clean Water Program executives “will need a lot of mitigation credits to offset their projects,” Hogan said. “We want to be there in the beginning with Carmel Mountain.”

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