An environmental impact report is supposed to be an "alarm bell" that alerts both the public and its responsible officials to serious consequences before a project has reached the ecological point of no return.
Unfortunately, the alarm wasn't working when the San Diego City Council recently approved the 2.5-mile, four-lane extension of Jackson Drive through Mission Trails Regional Park. The council also failed to heed the warning of environmentalists who pointed out the report's shortcomings. Now the city faces a lawsuit and a possible ballot initiative to stop the road.
Yet, the San Diego City Council is on the cusp of committing $40 million to $70 million in scarce resources to this potentially flawed project. And with legal fees to fight the lawsuit, the price could go higher.
At least two serious problems with the report stand out: Alternatives to the road were not adequately considered, and neither was the cumulative impact of roads planned to intersect Jackson Drive.
Legally, an environmental impact report is required to consider those alternatives that would accomplish the project's basic objectives.
The objectives of the Jackson Drive extension are relieving traffic congestion on Mission Gorge Road and providing public access to the 5,700-acre park on the eastern edge of the city.
The report weighs two alternatives: the extension of Tierrasanta Boulevard to Mission Gorge Road and a variation of the Jackson Drive route through the park.
The first alternative would not accomplish the project's purposes, and therefore is not a real alternative. Although the extension of Tierrasanta Boulevard would marginally reduce traffic on Mission Gorge, it would not provide any access to the park.
With the alternate route, only the middle third of the highway would be different. It would basically have the same adverse environmental consequences as the proposed route--and, again, not be a genuine alternative.
The second obvious problem with the report is its failure to adequately examine the cumulative environmental effects of the project. An environmental impact report must, by law, discuss the cumulative effects of present and reasonably anticipated projects. The guiding principle is that environmental considerations should not be minimized by chopping a large project into bite-sized little ones.
Even though the report predicts that Clairemont Mesa Boulevard will be extended to meet Jackson Drive, and acknowledges that this will further disrupt the park's natural resources, that is all the report says about it.
In other words, both the public and the council are given a bite-sized piece of a larger project, while the more serious overall effects are ignored.
This refusal to carefully consider the cumulative impacts of the Clairemont Mesa Boulevard extension is particularly serious. Many citizens, especially those in Tierrasanta, have been lulled into believing that Clairemont Mesa will not be connected to Jackson Drive. But the extension is contained on numerous legally adopted city planning documents, including the General Plan for San Diego.
The report also fails to consider the cumulative effect of access roads into the park that will feed off of Jackson Drive.
What access into the park from the Jackson Drive extension is contemplated? Where is the access to be located? How large will the connections be? What roads will they connect to within the park? What will be the environmental consequences associated with all of these planned connections?
Until these fundamental questions are analyzed, the environmental impact report does not serve its public's interest.
We are only told that Jackson Drive will permit access to Mission Trails Regional Park via an interior loop road to future camping, hiking and interpretive areas. This general observation does not give either the public or the City Council the information it needs to judge the environmental consequences of the Jackson Drive project.
These as well as other shortcomings in the environmental impact report dictate that the council should move cautiously. The council should voluntarily require that the report be done right before it proceeds any further. To do otherwise would be imprudent and could prove costly to the city and its taxpayers.