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A Perspective on Development in the Borrego Valley

Tom Weber’s thoughtful piece on development standards for Borrego Springs (below) is spot on. His insistence that, first and foremost, the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group and the county recognize and acknowledge the valley’s “severe groundwater overdraft” and that development standards flow from this stark reality is, no doubt, informed by his years as General Manager of the Borrego Water District (BWD) during which the district’s Groundwater Management Plan was written and adopted. He knows whereof he speaks.

For more than 60 years there has been a complete disconnect between Borrego’s ever-worsening groundwater deficit and helter-skelter agricultural, residential, and golf course development in the valley. Despite frequent lip-service given the need to address the overdraft, it has, in fact, been consistently ignored. For a current and egregious example of this, read the Desert Area Initiative proposal that is now circulating.

Borregans no longer have the luxury of ignoring the overdraft. Unless the BWD, Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group, and the county all begin immediately to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, we are inviting disaster. Every decision made by any agency with land-use authority in the valley must be made in a way that decreases demand on our aquifer; and no project of any sort that would increase demand should even be considered, let alone approved. That flies in the face of historical precedent and current practice; but absent such strict discipline, Borrego has no future.

Former County Planner Suggests List of Development Standards

The “Borrego Sun” and the citizens of Borrego have looked with some concern upon all the proposals for development that have come before the local, county designated planning group known as the Borrego Springs Sponsor Group. The sponsor group is charged with making recommendations to the County staff and boards on local development proposals. Some of the projects are just ideas someone wants to pass by them. Others are actual applications filed with the county that the county staff has asked them to give a recommendation on. The Chair, Abby King, expressed her frustration at a recent meeting saying, “We get these proposals and inquiries from developers and I am not sure what I can offer to developers as guidelines for appropriate development in Borrego?”

In thinking about that in my exile here in Buckeye, Arizona, I decided to put together a list of ideas of what I would say to them and suggest that the Sponsor Group look it over and develop their own as a handout for developers. To paraphrase my list, it stated:

The valley has a severe groundwater overdraft. We need projects that will help resolve that, not increase it. Fallowing farm land is the method that has been adopted. The more your project aids that effort to mitigate your new water uses, the more support you will have. Borrego has all the subdivided, vacant one-acre lots it needs for future growth. If you want to develop your land with urban densities, give us a project that involves good design, build-out and clustering. That will help both you and us as it will provide a new form of residential use and will preserve most of the land in its natural low-water-use condition. Make sure that your project conforms to the lower densities of the pending 2020 plan. Don’t try to beat the adoption date of that new plan by insisting that your project does not need an environmental impact report (EIR) as all possible impacts have been mitigated. We will be the judge of that for the community, not you. Our inventory of larger residential lots has had a high sales rate over the last few years. You could serve your aims and ours if you considered creating a development of low water-use estate parcels by fallowing an area of agricultural land. Also, the agricultural land is located near the de Anza County Club and that facility could be used as an incentive for buying these estate parcels without having to add heavy water-use amenities to the project. To prepare this list, I looked back at the pending 2020 Plan to see what the land uses in that plan provide for future development in the valley and how these proposals fit into the plan. To my surprise, almost none of these projects in conformance with the densities of that plan, which reduces the area for residential development to help with the water issue. It took five years to get that plan done. Now they [developers] are trying to beat its adoption. In order to beat the time-frame on adoption of the plan, which does not grandfather-in projects in process, the developers are trying to avoid having to do any environmental review on their projects by saying that all environmental issues are mitigated, or will be. Trust us.

The Sponsor Group has actually recommended approval of some smaller projects that are not in conformance and have not done an EIR, even though environmentalists have pointed out the importance of the site’s natural environment.

As a planner, I am also concerned about the cumulative impact of all these projects on our road system. County staff has said that the 2020 plan is so carefully balanced that if we allow growth not included in it, we are all going to have to widen Palm Canyon Drive and roads outside the valley. Now we have proposals for an estimated 2,700 more undeveloped lots in the valley that are not in conformance with that plan. Do we really want the Sponsor Group to give a recommendation on these projects without an EIR?

Although it is the County staff that is calling upon the Sponsor Group to give a recommendation on the pending projects, it is time that they took the position that any project -- any -- that is not in conformance with the new densities in the pending 2020 Plan be required to prepare an Environmental Impact Report. Just tell the county staff, “We and the community need an EIR so that we can evaluate this project and its mitigations. Until we get that, we can’t give you an opinion on the project other than to recommend denial.”

Tom Weber
Buckeye, AZ

Note to users of this letter sent to “The Borrego Sun“:

My original list to the sponsor group had five items, with the addition of “Make sure that your project is compatible with existing adjacent development” In the rush to complete the letter to make “The Borrego Sun” deadline, I forgot to include it. They also edited my overly long letter, but it covers the same information as this original draft.) TW

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