July 12 2002

Commentary

Otay Ranch and The End of the MSCP

By Nancy Fay

All over American people praise —and copy— San Diego’s Multiple Species Conservation Program. As well they should: The MSCP was the first and still the best program in the country to preserve land for wildlife while at the same time, setting aside land for people. All at no cost to the taxpayers.

Sounds simple, but it took a lot of work to show landowners and environmentalists they could both win. But first they had to trust each other —but only so far. Or as Ronald Reagan used to say: Trust, but verify.

But a decade of trust and results is threatening to come undone if one of the country’s largest landowners has its way and is allowed to renege on a deal it made to set aside thousands of acres of land for habitat preservation.

The scene of this disaster is south San Diego; the 23,000 acres known as Otay Ranch. There, a group of companies all controlled by the people who used to be known as the Baldwin in Company —formerly one of America’s largest homebuilders— are trying to break a deal they made to set aside thousands of acres of some of the best open space in Southern California.

If the County Board of Supervisors allows this to happen later this month, this could be a blueprint for the death of the MSCP. Not even developers want that.

Even a cursory look at any newspaper archive shows this is not the first time Baldwin-controlled companies have struck a deal, reaped the benefits, the disappeared when it came time for them to make good on their promises.

In Orange County, public officials took the unprecedented step of threatening to file foreclosure if Baldwin didn’t make good on $600,000 in back taxes. In Anaheim, Baldwin had to be forced to complete a $1.5 million park it promised to its own homeowners.

Former company executives successfully sued Baldwin and were awarded millions of dollars at trial after the company refused to live up to a profit-sharing program. Later, the judge found that Balwin had lied at the trial about its finances.

In Carmel Valley in San Diego, homeowners are furious that Baldwin’s problems prevented it from completing improvements and parks. Unpaid subcontractors are seemingly everywhere. Baldwin even had to be sued to pay a commission to the broker who sold Otay Ranch.

The list goes on and on: This is a company that doesn’t like to keep a deal unless it is forced in a court of law.

The Baldwin brothers may have lost control of their homebuilding company in bankruptcy court, (and oh yeah, the bankruptcy trustee had to sue them too) but they retained an interest in the company that actually bought the property at Otay Ranch. The same company that agreed to set aside thousands of acres of open space for habitat.

The same company that now doesn’t want to keep that promise. It is too expensive, too inconvenient, to just about anything, they say. And after reaping the benefits of selling the land and building the home, the Baldwin-controlled company want to change the deal. Again. Surprise?

Not really. That is what they do. They just hoped no one would notice.

People who like the MSCP noticed.

If the Baldwins are allowed to change the deal so late in the game, this decision will be a blueprint for other landowners to do the same thing all over San Diego. A blueprint to kill the MSCP: Make a deal. Collect the benefits, then when it comes time to perform, shrug young shoulders and say ‘we can’t do it.’

The decision to build homes on 23,000 acres of some of the finest open space in San Diego was not arrived at casually. But many people supported this plan only because it included provisions for open space and the MSCP.

These plans that are now being thrown away because a property owner is hoping local politicians will not hold them to its promises. Promises other property owners in the county keep as a matter of honor. Promises Baldwin breaks as a matter of routine.

If Ronald Reagan were here, he would say the time for trusting Baldwin is over. And now is the time to verify.

Ms. Fay can be email at: latida1@aol.com.

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