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Robert Didion, program manager for San Diego's Land Development Review Division, said Montgomery is complying with the rules despite a few irregularities.

When the division gave Montgomery a grading permit in December, Didion said, it was unaware of the illegal grading violation issued by another city department. Had the division known, it would have billed Montgomery $7241 instead of $4827. Other penalties might have applied if the grading had affected endangered or threatened plants and wildlife. Montgomery's procurement of a grading permit corrects his previous violation, Didion said.

In December, the division also drafted an "encroachment removal" agreement with Montgomery, allowing him to grade the easement within Pepperview Canyon. The contract should have been signed and recorded before any grading occurred, but in Montgomery's case the document wasn't signed until March or recorded until June. That delay, resulting from a missing exhibit, is not uncommon in construction projects, Didion said.

Ongoing development -- albeit legal -- of San Diego's vacant land frustrates environmentalists.

"This is a story that hasn't been told," said Terry Weiner, co-chair of the Sierra Club's land-use and water committee in San Diego. "It's the story of our crummy municipal code that has changed recently from bad to worse." Weiner thinks Pepperview Canyon is a wetlands, too, based on some arroyo willows, shells, and puddles she photographed there a few months ago. The canyon may be a tributary of Paradise Creek, which feeds Paradise Marsh. Weiner also took photos of such native plants as California sage, laurel sumac, lemonade berry, and Mojave yucca.

Whether the canyon hosted any threatened or endangered wildlife and plants would be hard to prove now that part of it is bare, Weiner said. "Mind you, this is not a pristine wetland. This is what you would call a degraded canyon, but I was very upset by what I saw. If the canyon was revegetated again, it could be restored." Instead, "They made a mess. They flattened the hillside and ruined the natural contour."

While admitting his confusion in dealing with various city agencies, Montgomery said he has tried to follow the rules and not harm the environment. "This is not a wildlife preserve," he said. "I find it ironic that community activists raise environmental issues when you have illegal dumping." Carlin Bryant, a special assistant to councilmember Stevens, said Stevens became concerned about Pepperview Canyon being used as a trash heap in early 1999, after a corpse was found along 66th Street. At that time, they learned Wear owned land nearby, Bryant said.

Wear said he cares about the environment, noting he advocates removing the city's sewer system from canyons. But, "I have to tell you: the area we're talking about is not an environmentally sensitive canyon," Wear said. "From a land-use standpoint, the land is zoned for homes on 5000 square feet, but the lots are 10,000 square feet -- twice the size of the zone. Another developer would remap the whole thing into smaller lots, but Chris is maintaining the rural character."

Juan Muños, whose home overlooks Pepperview Canyon, isn't opposed to the project because it would deter garbage dumping, but he questions the quality of workmanship. When grading occurred last year, about ten feet of his property slid to the canyon floor. "Without a permit, they took a lot of dirt out, and the hillside fell." Montgomery's crew rebuilt the canyon wall and Munos's side yard, but the dirt is looser, and a crack has emerged. "The density isn't the same," Munos said, stomping the ground. "The whole thing is going to come down."

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