By Hutton Marshall
Last year, Mayor Kevin Faulconer unveiled his draft Climate Action Plan, a legally binding blueprint for creating a more environmentally friendly San Diego over the next 20 years. Environmentalists praised the document as a meaningful way to combat climate change locally.
The overarching goal of the CAP is to put the city on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The CAP would guide the city to hit this reduction target using renewable energy, active transportation and sustainable city planning. The plan is expected to go before the City Council in late 2015 or early 2016.
Nicole Capretz drafted the first iteration of the CAP as a staffer for then-Interim Mayor Todd Gloria. That version was largely preserved in Faulconer’s draft. Capretz now leads a newly formed, University Heights-based nonprofit, Climate Action Campaign (CAC), created specifically to advocate for “the strongest possible Climate Action Plan for San Diego.”
Capretz and CAC’s other staff member, Kath Rogers, currently occupy many of their evenings by visiting community organizations around the city to explain what the climate plan is and why it’s important. This advocacy is important not just for public awareness, Capretz said, but because much of the plan’s critical details are still subject to debate.
Developing new development standards
California requires any city-conducted or city-approved project to undergo an environmental review following the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A CEQA review measures the impact that projects will have on environmental factors like greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife resources.
The CAP wouldn’t change this statewide mandate. Rather, the climate plan calls for the city to develop its own measures and standards to apply to projects large enough to trigger an environmental review, which vary depending on what or where the development is.
These additional measures, known as the “CAP Consistency Review Checklist,” would evaluate how proposed projects would impact and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The city will also factor in water and energy efficiencies, as well as access to biking, walking and transit, according to Brian Schoenfisch, senior planner with the city of San Diego.
In addition to increased scrutiny on individual projects, Capretz said the city will have to be cognizant of how development takes shape on a larger scale. The CAP calls for stricter adherence to an existing planning strategy known as “City of Villages,” which encourages populating communities near transit corridors where residents can work, live and socialize without straying far from their community. The city may have to guide long-term city planning using the invisible hand of discretionary review for this to occur.
“[The CAP] isn’t binding on a specific project, but in principle it’s binding on the city to implement the ‘City of Villages’ strategy to reach its goals,” Capretz said. “So it’s going to be a tool for every individual project.”
Capretz said this will likely make private developments more alluring to city planners if they’re shown to promote tenets of the CAP, such as smart growth and mass transit promotion.
“Developers are obviously going to rely on this in their lobbying, right?” Capretz said. “They’ll say, ‘You have to approve this. How else can you meet your mass transit goals?’”
CAP and community plans
Uptown, Greater North Park and Greater Golden Hill are currently updating their community plans, documents updated every 20 to 30 years to guide future developments and projects in their respective communities. These updates are done by the Planning Department with the local community planning group providing input throughout the process.
Community plans fit into a broad-based document known as the General Plan, which outlines planning and development practices across the city. Included in this is a section called “Climate Change and Sustainable Development,” which Schoenfisch said will now be implemented using community plans.
Like the CAP, this section also calls for implementation of the City of Villages strategy, which among other components, suggests increasing density in San Diego’s urban core near transit lines.
Increasing density, especially in Uptown, has not always been a popular notion in community planning groups. In Hillcrest, for example, many locals advocated for a low building height limit in order to prevent what some saw as overdeveloping the neighborhood.
The CAP doesn’t name specific projects or neighborhoods to be developed, so Capretz said it will be largely up to the city administration (i.e. the mayor’s office and the Planning Department) to apply this policy on the micro level.
For instance, if a community advocates for a plan that would limit density increases, that could create a situation where the city would have to go against the desires of the community to ensure it hit its greenhouse reduction targets outlined in the CAP.
Capretz said this could pressure elected officials like Faulconer, a Republican who campaigned on giving individual neighborhoods a voice in City Hall, to play a more interventionist role in community planning in order to meet the CAP’s target greenhouse reductions.
“The mayor has to convey, in my opinion, why this vision is so important,” Capretz said. “It’s also not enough just for him to just say that he supports the climate plan without explaining what it means on the ground.”
That’s why advocacy and community outreach is critical at this stage in the CAP’s approval process, Capretz said, to acclimate the pubic to the specifics of the plan prior to its implementation.
“You can’t just go to communities and say after they developed a community plan … ‘we read all your community input about not increasing density, but too bad’ — no, you can’t do that.”
Rogers will present on the CAP at the Uptown Planners March 3 at 6 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center. To read the CAP in its entirety or to learn more about the CAC, visit climateactioncampaign.org.
—Contact Hutton Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.