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Tough decisions for San Diego.

Tough decisions for San Diego

In medieval Europe, cities announced a civic coming of age with the construction of a cathedral. American cities trumpet their climb to the big time by hosting a Super Bowl.

San Diego did just that this year. But you can follow its rise in more quantifiable ways. At 1,100,000 people, it's now the second largest city on the Pacific Coast, and seventh largest in the nation. Since 1970, the city has grown 44 percent.

But in a region that has prided itself as much on what it wasn't--congested, polluted, a hassle--as what it was, this rapid influx has stirred concern. According to a recent study by SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments), county residents were most irked about traffic, next about the loss of open space.

That worry is shared all over the West. How do you preserve some wide open spaces near enough to be enjoyed?

One of the last valleys

In San Diego, discussion centers on a 50-mile-long river valley that bends from the Laguna Mountains to the Pacific near Del Mar. The San Dieguito Valley divides San Diego proper from Escondido and other fast-growing communities of the North County.

In many ways, it serves as a reminder of what first attracted people to this corner of California. Just before it enters the ocean, it becomes a 200-acre lagoon, a vital stop for migrating waterfowl. The flood plain to the east is rich farmland; plants on the chaparral-covered slopes above include species found nowhere else. Farther inland, you glimpse small secluded side canyons before the narrow, surprisingly dramatic Del Dios Gorge.

San Diego is marked by a series of such valleys and canoyns. One, Los Penasquitos Canyon, is partly protected by a city open space program that has now acquired 14,000 acres. But most have been urbanized--Mission Valley so rapidly it's come to serve as a shorthand symbol for the city's growth. Will the San Dieguito follow Penasquitos, or the others?

Mechanisms for saving open space

Western cities have tried to protect open space in various ways. One of the best-known programs is in Boulder, Colorado. Its Open Space District, funded by a .4 percent tax, has acquired a 16,100-acre greenbelt around the city. The program is popular: in 1986, an 80-percent vote made it a permanent part of the city charter.

South of San Francisco, Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District has acquired 28,000 acres of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains for public use.

Buying land is the most certain means of protecting it. But in an era of tight municipal budgets, this can be prohibitively expensive. Other methods have been successful. Private nonprofit groups like the Trust for Public Land have pioneered the use of open-space easements, where property owners keep land undeveloped in return for tax benefits.

"Almost everyone agreed we needed to do something"

Though San Diego's open-space program owns little land in the San Dieguito Valley, portions have already been protected by other means. In the 1970s, the Lagoon Committee of Del Mar, aided by the California Coastal Conservancy, worked to spare the wetlands from development.

But as other portions of the valley yielded to development pressure, groups like Friends of the San Dieguito River, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and San Diego's Citizens Coordinate for Century Three began looking at the San Dieguito's potential as a park. So did the city and county governments. Says Stuart Shaffer of SANDAG, "Almost everyone agreed we needed to do something."

But the valley's future remains unsettled. SANDAG is studying park proposals, as are the county and the city. The new San Dieguito Land Trust hopes to raise funds to buy land. But San Diego councilman Bruce Henderson believes a park won't succeed unless governments work out equitable agreements with valley landowners. "There's incredible potential there. But if you fail to make democratic compromises, you don't get very far."

San Diego voters will also have a say. Initial funding is linked to the passage of the California Wildlife, Coastal, and Park Land Initiative in June. The November ballot brings San Diego's Sensitive Lands Initiative. If passed, it would limit development on wetlands, steep slopes, and in flood plans--categories that include much of the valley.

Says one planner, "What Balboa Park is to downtown San Diego, the San Dieguito River Valley could be to the northern end of the city." Alice Goodkind of Friends of the San Dieguito River says, "We're not talking about saving all the places. We're talking about the last 10 percent."

Photo: San Dieguito Valley runs east from Pacific Ocean near Del Mar. Busy I-5 cuts off lagoon from rest of valley. Foreground chaparral is recovering from fire
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sunset's 90th Anniversary Special Report; preserve wide open spaces
Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1988
Words:786
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