Planning for a long stretch of rural lands on the fringe of suburban San Diego County continues to be a roiling controversy played out in the courts, the election booth and the Board of Supervisors chambers. The county lost the latest round in the courtroom recently when Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell ruled that the environmental impact report for the general plan amendment covering 191,000 acres was inadequate. The ruling pleased environmentalists and the state Attorney General's office, but the county has appealed. As the San Diego regional economy expands and the real estate market continues to blaze, the pressure for urban development is mounting. At the same time, San Diego County has one of the world's widest arrays of plants and animals, several of which are protected under federal and state law. While only portions of the land involved in this controversy are subject to intense development pressure, and no endangered species live in the immediate area, the land contains some of the best grasslands and oak woodlands remaining in Southern California. "It's really a rural sprawl type of problem," said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, which has weighed in on the environmentalists' side. "It's a ranchette issue, which is a severe problem in San Diego County." At issue are 191,000 noncontiguous acres that stretch almost the length of the county from north to south. The county has placed the land in its land use designation known as "(20)," or "agricultural preserve." The area is the western portion of what is often called San Diego County's "backcountry." In 1994, the county amended its land use element to establish an eight-acre minimum for all of the (20) lands. Environmentalists sued, and Judge McConnell ruled in 1996 that the plan was inconsistent with the county general plan's agricultural goals and that the county needed to prepare an environmental impact report. The county appealed the ruling but lost an unpublished appellate court decision in 1997. Away from the courtroom, environmentalists took to the ballot box in 1998 with an initiative to downzone 600,000 acres of the backcountry to 40- and 80-acre minimums, excluding several unincorporated villages. County voters, however, rejected the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative by a 60-40 ratio. (See CP&DR, September 1998, December 1998.) In April of this year, the Board of Supervisors adopted general plan amendment 96-03 for the 191,000 acres. The amendment designated the agricultural preserve lands that lie inside the County Water Authority boundary for 10-acre minimum parcel sizes. This amounted to about 10% of the 191,000 acres. The remaining 90% was given 40-acre minimum lot sizes. The county then asked Judge McConnell to remove her 1996 order blocking imposition of new general plan policies for the area — a request opposed by environmentalists and the state Attorney General's office. In an opinion that quoted singer Joni Mitchell, Judge McConnell ruled that the county's EIR was inadequate under the California Environmental Quality Act. "It has been said — and sung — that ‘you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone,'" McConnell wrote. "Yet where CEQA applies, the opposite is true: Citizens and decision makers must, in fact, be informed of what they have before, and not after, it is gone. While the environmental effects of GPA 96-03 are unknown, they are not, as the County insists, unknowable." McConnell said that the proposed general plan designation would allow agricultural grading to proceed without any further county review, potentially harming flora and fauna. And, she noted, the county proposed to implement no mitigations for this potential impact. In a follow-up order, McConnell directed the county to prepare an EIR specifically addressing the impacts on biological, zoological, botanical and hydrological resources, and to identify feasible mitigation measures. The judge's decision hit hard at the issue of "intensive agriculture," which could devastate important habitat with wide-scale grading, said Rachel Hooper, an attorney for environmentalists. Deputy Attorney General Sally Magnani Knox said that the county must analyze impacts of wide-scale grading — and establish feasible mitigations — at the general plan stage. "The problem with this project is they assumed it would allow clearing of native vegetation for agricultural projects without any additional review," Knox said. Senior Deputy County Counsel Laurie Orange, however, argued that McConnell and the Attorney General's office are incorrectly holding the county to a project-specific standard of environmental review. The county would scrutinize subdivisions and other developments subsequent to the general plan amendment at the time they are proposed. And, Orange said, no more grading would be allowed under GPA 96-03 than is already permitted. "The project is not proposing any development … It's actually more environmentally sensitive than the prior plan," Orange said. "This is a continuation of all the uses that have been ongoing for decades." Environmentalists and county planners differ on the likely outcome of imposing 10-acre and 40-acre zoning. Environmentalists say 10-acre lots, expensive water and, in some cases, poor soil combine to discourage farming and invite ranchette-style development. Planners and the San Diego County Farm Bureau say the proposed zoning encourages the county's $1.2 billion-a-year agricultural industry. They say 66% of they county's farms are on 9 acres or less, and the industry has shifted to high-value, labor intensive crops such as cut flowers and bedding plants that do not need huge parcels of land. Duncan McFetridge, chairman of Save Our Forest And Ranchlands (SOFAR), said that protecting these 191,000 acres is key to maintaining the integrity of the rest of the backcountry. Descanso-based SOFAR has headed up the litigation and was behind the failed 1998 initiative. McFetridge rejects both GPA 96-03 and a larger, ongoing general plan update. The county should use the County Water Authority boundary as an urban growth boundary and prevent most development east of the line, he said. He suggested that the political winds may have changed since the rejection of the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative two years ago. Urban growth boundaries are seen as promoting efficient development, urban renewal has gained momentum in San Diego, El Cajon and Lakeside, and the county keeps losing in court. "We all know the only way to get out of this impasse is with an initiative … We're always thinking about it," McFetridge said. "We have some incredible stuff to save. We're not L.A. yet." Meanwhile, county planners have begun public hearings on what they call "Alternative 3," which is a draft land use distribution plan on a macro scale, according to Joan Vokac, the county's chief of advance planning. Alternative 3 is a "density-based" plan, rather than a traditional "parcel-based" plan. The county's proposal sets desired population densities for areas, then allows for design flexibility. The county based its proposed densities on input from 26 planning groups spread around the county, which planners queried regarding preferred population levels, Vokac said. Thus far, people have had a difficult time grasping the density-based plan. They do not yet see the benefits, such as protection of farmland and open space, and more efficient use of infrastructure, she said. The Board of Supervisors hopes to complete the general plan update by mid-2001. But few people expect a new general plan to end the litigation and threats of initiatives regarding San Diego County's backcountry. Contacts: Duncan McFetridge, Save Our Forests And Ranchlands, (619) 445-9638. SOFAR website: Rachel Hooper, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, (415) 552-7272. Sally Magnani Knox, Attorney General's Office, (916) 322-1802. Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (323) 654-1456. Laurie Orange, San Diego County Counsel's Office, (619) 531-5799. Joan Vokac, San Diego County Department of Planning & Land Use, (858) 694-3765. County general plan website: