San Diego Ambrosia, a perennial herb in the sunflower family
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors postponed a vote that would approve building a warehouse distribution center at Gillespie Field - which Amazon is expected to lease - in order to review the environmental studies.
But environmental advocates say the city of El Cajon has already relocated 23,000 federally endangered San Diego Ambrosia plants from the county-owned land.
"There's a problem here that we need to get to the bottom of," Frank Landis, Conservation Chair of the California Native Plant Society, told supervisors at the March 3rd meeting.
"[The Amazon warehouse land] is a non-aviation private land lease on county-owned property associated with Gillespie Field Airport."
The Weld Boulevard Distribution Center is proposed on a 31.7 acre site in El Cajon at the northwest corner of Cuyamaca Street and Weld Boulevard, part of the Gillespie Field airport. While El Cajon has land use authority, it doesn't own the land.
And the county hasn’t yet signed the lease.
"Going into a parcel you don’t own and digging up an entire population of an endangered plant is normally illegal and under county and California Fish and Wildlife jurisdiction."
Until last week, he says, the Weld site held the largest population of endangered San Diego Ambrosia, a perennial herb in the sunflower family that was federally listed in 2002, and is native to the site.
In January, 2021, El Cajon authorized the 23,000 plants to be removed, and on Feb. 26 they were taken out and transplanted, he says - but where? All that was clear was that they would be moved to land managed by the Endangered Habitat Conservancy.
El Cajon officials say they've done everything by the rules.
"Neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the California Department of Fish & Wildlife have jurisdiction of the Weld Blvd. ambrosia," says Anthony Shute, El Cajon's director of community development. He adds that the agencies were regularly consulted in the planning process.
In 2009, when the city certified the environmental impact report for a different project within Gillespie Field, U.S. Fish & Wildlife issued a biological opinion on a smaller population of Ambrosia on the southeast corner. The impact on those plants, deemed significant, was mitigated by moving them off site for conservation.
Hanson Pond. The ambrosia is being transplanted to a flat plateau on a terrace above Hanson Pond.
But there was no similar opinion about the plants on the Weld parcel.
In August 2020, a biological survey was done by Harris and Associates for the developer, Chestnut Properties, and more ambrosia was found in the central and eastern portions of the site, smack in the path of the sprawling warehouse.
There would be no way to avoid the plants with a 142,756-square-foot distribution warehouse, parking, and product pick-up and drop-off areas taking up 27 acres of the project site.
An addendum was made to the environmental impact report. Again, mitigation was to move the plants out of harm's way with a new translocation plan, before issuing a grading permit.
The addendum stated that there is no federal action or federal jurisdiction on the project, meaning certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act don't apply - another point environmentalists dispute, given the plant's listing status.
Landis says he's "very curious why the FAA and the [U.S. Fish & wildlife] were not involved, since the airport is under FAA jurisdiction and the federally endangered Ambrosia is under [U.S. Fish & wildlife] jurisdiction."
But it's not just the plant's endangered status. "The native plant society is very concerned," he adds, because Ambrosia pumila "grows great on suitable sites, but dies out" if transplanted in the wrong soil.
"We always advocate not moving this plant. If it must be moved, it is probably better to transplant it to an area that already hosts other Ambrosia pumila, rather than putting it on a site where it has no history of ever growing."
Shute says that's just what they did. The plants have been moved to the Hanson Pond Preserve, which is owned, conserved, and managed by the Endangered Habitat Conservancy.
The receiver site was chosen for its topography, a flat plateau on a terrace above Hanson Pond, northwest of Highway 67 in Lakeside; its fine silty loams or clay soils that hold water; and suitable habitat conditions.
"San Diego ambrosia was previously translocated to the property and one stand is thriving in similar conditions as identified for the Weld Blvd. translocation."
Shute says it wasn't necessary for the federal agencies to be involved. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no jurisdiction over listed plants in the absence of a federal nexus or state interest."
And the project "is not subject to a Federal Action by the FAA because it is a non-aviation private land lease on county-owned property associated with Gillespie Field Airport."
The county will revisit the item on March 17, after supervisors have taken a closer look at the environmental studies. Landis says he isn't sure what happens if the approval is not granted.
"In the normal course of things, if a mistake is made, such as project approval being rescinded, things have to be put back the way they were before the approval happened."