Floods Reignite San Diego Residents' Opposition to New Fire Station

July 8, 2024
While they support a new fire station, they argue the Webster hillside is not the best site.

Last winter’s historic floods in southeastern San Diego have helped reignite community opposition to a new fire station proposed there, but city officials say they have no plans to back away from the long-planned but controversial project.

The site, perched on a Webster hillside at 47th Street and Fairmount Avenue, was chosen nearly a decade ago to help fill a badly needed coverage gap in fire protection.

But during a years-long delay, residents raised concerns about the steep terrain, dense vegetation and location overlooking the Chollas Parkway Open Space. The city is now conducting an environmental review expected to be finished by 2026.

Residents and watershed advocates who oppose the project say they support building a new fire station, but they worry developing the planned site would deplete natural resources needed to absorb storm runoff, and could worsen future flooding downstream.

“We realized what can happen when you put 15-to-20,000 square feet of infrastructure right on top of the creek,” said Leslie Reynolds, the executive director of Groundwork San Diego-Chollas Creek.

Environmental objections to the plan aren’t new. For years concerns have been raised about potential impacts on animal habitat and whether firefighting chemicals might contaminate local waterways.

But to some opponents, the disaster of Jan. 22 — when catastrophic flooding tore through neighborhoods nearby and downstream, displacing thousands of people — lent a new urgency.

Howard Cuarezma, who lives in Mountain View with his wife and two young sons, has watched his community rebuild months later.

The storms were a “wake-up call” for the city to acknowledge the needs of the watershed, he said, and he wants flood mitigation considered in locating the fire station.

Residents and environmental groups say that paving over the site to make way for the station could send water rushing across the 1.28-acre site, down the creek and into nearby homes. Currently, soil and vegetation help absorb storm runoff.

And they worry that would further stress already weak flood prevention infrastructure in the area that was exposed during the January storms.

“We’re trying to have residents understand that the watershed is like a biosystem that affects everyone,” said Cuarezma, who is also an organizer with Groundwork’s Blue Green Vision Campaign. “So even if the fire station is not close to Mountain View or Southcrest, which sit at the bottom of the creek, it’s still gonna affect our neighborhoods down here.”

Deputy Fire Chief James Gaboury said the station would not worsen flood risk, partly because it would be built near the top of a hillside.

“Based on the location and the footprint, flooding is not going to be an impact,” he said last week.

Gaboury also said there is essentially no risk of ash, soot or any firefighting chemicals flowing downstream, because all city fire stations are equipped with lined cisterns to handle any dangerous liquids.

‘A charming place to be’

Just next door to the proposed fire station, at the senior community of Leisureland Mobile Villa, residents worry the project will upset the tranquil spot in which many chose to retire, causing traffic jams and threatening wildlife.

“It’s a charming place to be,” said 67-year-old Valerie Traina, who moved into the community with her husband 10 years ago. “We love nature. That’s what makes this really special for us.”

Traina regularly sees coyotes, rabbits and many different birds in the open space near Leisureland. She and her neighbors are frustrated that the station — and the noises and lights that come with it — might disturb the wildlife.

The area is included in the city’s Multiple Habitat Planning Area, established as part of the Multiple Species Conservation Program Subarea Plan that aims to preserve biological diversity.

That’s a key reason local chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society oppose building a fire station there.

“These disturbances will degrade the quality of life for wildlife and may drive out the more sensitive species inhabiting this area,” Lesley Handa, the lead ornithologist at the San Diego Audubon, said at a community event in opposition to the plan last month.

The Multiple Habitat Planning Area does not prohibit the development of “essential public facilities” within its boundaries, a city spokesperson said in an email.

But the proposed project must adhere to requirements in the city’s land development code and biology guidelines, including assessing potential impacts to sensitive biological resources and incorporating buffer zones, wildlife corridors and other mitigation measures to address any impacts.

Opposition to the project began soon after the site was selected in 2015. By 2021, the city agreed to conduct an environmental impact report to analyze the project’s effects on the area.

That report is underway, and the public review draft is expected to be ready by early 2025.

But Reynolds from Groundwork wishes the city weren’t spending money on that report and would instead start over elsewhere.

At the site on Fairmount Avenue, opponents are currently asking the city for a trailhead park, a small-scale park that would include a trailhead, benches and interpretive signs, Reynolds said. This is the kind of green space they say is lacking in southeastern San Diego and nearby areas.

To those advocates, such a plan would fit with existing city policy. Mayor Todd Gloria in 2021 announced an ambitious plan to transform the Chollas Creek watershed into a regional park. Leaving the site natural, since it’s in the heart of the watershed, fits with that goal, some residents say.

The city points out that it’s not uncommon to locate public facilities, such as ranger stations and visitor centers, within regional parks and that the boundaries of this one include various city- and privately-owned sites.

“City service infrastructure such as a fire station would not be considered incompatible with a regional park since it is an essential public facility,” a city spokesperson said in an email.

Kristen Hurst, a science teacher at Carver Elementary School and organizer with Groundwork, has lived in Webster for 13 years and says she has helped advocate for a community park for even longer. Her community submitted a capital improvements project proposal for a park they hoped would be a “shoo-in,” given the city’s dedication to creating more green spaces.

That has made it even more upsetting for her to see the city move forward with the fire station.

“We’re pretty much built-out,” Hurst said of the community at the event last month. “This open space here is our last chance to be able to have a place that is in pristine environmental condition.”


‘The most contentious project’

Fire officials have been surprised by the opposition. Most neighborhoods want new fire stations so much that they are welcomed even if a site is not ideal, Gaboury said.

“This has probably been the most contentious project of all my years doing this,” he said.

But he maintains that the station wouldn’t increase flood risk, wouldn’t threaten nearby wildlife and should be built as soon as possible in order to fill a gap that has long left this area with some of San Diego’s worst emergency response times.

Opponents have also raised concerns about the cost of the project; the environmental impact report costs $1 million, and the total project is expected to cost $28 million — up sharply from its original $12 million estimate a decade ago. No money has been set aside for construction yet.

Gaboury said the high cost reflects higher construction costs and new city policies that have inflated them further — and the city’s climate action plan requires solar panels and charging stations for electric fire engines.

Two other stations in the construction pipeline have similar price tags. A new station near UC San Diego is currently estimated at $23 million, and one in Black Mountain Ranch at $27 million.

Gaboury suspects that even if a station weren’t built on 47th Street, the site would still be developed for some other project. It was zoned industrial, not open space, when the city bought it in 2017, and the prior owner had studied the feasibility of building seven homes on it, he said.

“There was already some site analysis done that determined it was buildable,” he said.

Gaboury stressed that an essential part of the environmental analysis, under California law, is analyzing alternate sites.

He said city officials agreed in 2021 to do a full environmental impact report, veering from plans for a less rigorous mitigated negative declaration — a document saying a project has been revised to mitigate impacts and is not expected to have a significant effect on the environment.

“We want to address whatever concerns they have,” he said. But Gaboury said none of the other three sites the city strongly considered were viable options.

A site at 38th and Beech Streets was almost impossible to buy, because it had 17 different owners. One on Home Avenue, a former burn dump, would have required extensive environmental cleanup. And one at Home and Fairmount — the city’s first choice until late 2016 — carried flood risks of its own, being located in a flood plain and next to a drainage ditch.

The EIR will revisit each site and compare the environmental impacts of all four, he said.

Gaboury concedes the site comes with some challenges but said they aren’t as unusual as critics contend.

Work on Station 52 near UCSD had to be halted for a week last year after the discovery of sensitive Kumeyaay sites, and Station 50 in University City had its own problems with slope and habitat, Gaboury said. “We didn’t get any pushback on that one,” he said.

To some neighbors of the future Webster fire station, the city’s decision to move forward despite their pushback speaks to a longer pattern of neglect.

“We’ve been called underserved, and I feel like no one has paid attention,” said Jen Eastman, another Groundwork organizer who has lived in Webster for 21 years with her husband and son. “And I feel like now there are enough people who care.”

©2024 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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