As Poway’s mayor and a former city councilmember, Cafagna has, according to David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation group, been intimately involved in the Multiple Species Conservation Program. “Poway was the first jurisdiction to get a permit,” he says, “for taking of endangered species under San Diego’s mscp. There was a lot of political involvement in Poway with that program, so Cafagna is well aware of the importance of undeveloped sites for any wildlife, let alone critically endangered species.”
Apropos of Cafagna’s involvement in the Multiple Species Conservation Program, Riggan concludes his letter to Ken Berg of Fish and Wildlife, “If a strong signal is not sent by the agencies” — which Riggan told me means jail time and stiff fines if Cafagna or anyone in the city is shown to have had prior knowledge about the site’s protected status — “then all privately held ‘preserved’ lands are at risk and the mscp is a sham.”
In February, when Riggan returned to photograph the site, he talked with a man who works at Executive Micro, a computer dealer adjacent to the vernal pool site. Did he, Riggan, know anything about the area? the man asked. Yes, Riggan said, it’s a wetlands preserve. The man responded that he, too, had always heard that. The man described how puzzled he was to see bulldozers grading the property. Even more surprising for Riggan, the dozers entered not through the main gate but by tearing the fence open in Executive Micro’s parking lot. Why did they avoid the main opening? Riggan believes someone was “sneaking the equipment onto the back of the property where people wouldn’t see it. If there’s a big door [in front], why do you sneak through the window at the side of the house?”
Riggan’s ardent efforts to stop the grading, ironically, came more than a month after the fact: The project had already been stopped by the time he reported it. According to a March 16 letter, cosigned by Mike Spear, a regional manager at Fish and Wildlife, and Ronald Rempel, deputy director of Fish and Game, and sent to San Diego City Manager Michael T. Uberuaga, “A city official…informed our agencies that the grading permit was issued in error by employees who did not realize the entire parcel was to be permanently protected for vernal pool conservation to mitigate impacts from previous development of other property.” The City of San Diego had issued the permit to grade the Arjons site in the first place. For that action, the city is now facing state and federal reprisal. The letter demands the city “take immediate steps to mitigate environmental damage…and…ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future.” It’s unclear if this means fines or penalties any severer than this letter’s call for restoration. As to Square One’s liability, Bill Tippetts of Fish and Game has said his agency is waiting for the city’s response to its March 16 letter before Fish and Game decides to move against Cafagna.
The issuance of this now-famous Engineering Permit No. W-48163 was euphemistically termed by Stephen Haase, the city’s development review manager in the Department of Planning and Development, a “procedural error.” Riggan calls it a “major, major error. I was stunned that this [parcel] had never been flagged. Not only is this a preserve, it’s jurisdictional wetlands, which happens to contain several endangered species. This should have had a red flag on it. The city determined it was ministerial — you didn’t need to do environmental review to get a grading permit on this property. That is a major error.
“The city, compared to Mr. Cafagna,” Riggan continues, “may have made an honest mistake. Although at this point I’ve lost all confidence in their ability to flag these things adequately. I would like to see an oversight committee to review what the city’s doing procedurally so that all the people concerned can be assured that there are systems in place so this won’t happen again. This isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s just the worst.”
Stephen Haase admits the problem began in his office but places the brunt of the responsibility for the violation on Cafagna, the property owner. In an interview before the case was turned over to the city attorney’s office, Haase said the permit to grade the Arjons site was issued last year to Square One Development, the grading began in late November and was stopped by his office on December 9, 1999, after the dozers had worked it for approximately two weeks.
In the early 1980s, Haase grants, the site was mapped and set aside for mitigation. But Unit No. 3 “was not conveyed to the city, was not rezoned to open space, and there was no easement placed over it. Any one of those three things really would have increased the level of protection for that resource. Twenty years ago, that didn’t happen. We don’t do that today. And the reason is, we don’t want this [the Arjons grading] to happen. We want something on the title or the city wants possession of the land.
“What happened in the early 1980s was that you had a private property owner who had set aside land for mitigation and in perpetuity was responsible for protecting that land. Things change. And in this case, the ownership changed. But it has always been the private property owner’s [responsibility] to insure that that land was protected for mitigation purposes. By the way, that’s not the strongest position — to have the private sector protecting land which has really been set aside for public benefit. We don’t do business that way anymore.”
The “procedural error” Haase attributes to the city’s antiquated approval process. His office is in transition from a paper medium to an electronic one. He has applied for an Environmental Protection Agency grant of $65,000 to create an electronic database for all vernal pool complexes in the county, which he says should fix the problem. “If this [Arjons] site was set aside 20 years ago, we don’t have it in our database right now.” Haase is waiting to hear whether the Environmental Protection Agency grant has been awarded to the city. But, he notes, “If we don’t get federal money, we’ll invest our own funds to map it.”