Environmental Permitting for a Complex Downtown Plan

When the City of San Marcos received environmental permits to move forward with its 214-acre downtown specific plan built around San Marcos Creek, it culminated 12 years of complex environmental planning and permitting to effectively integrate water quality and native habitat preservation with the development. Dudek served as the City’s lead environmental consultant.

The San Marcos Creek District will include a mixed-use development project, a 73-acre native habitat preserve, other environmental enhancements, and multiple infrastructure improvements involving roadways, bridges, and flood control in the north San Diego County city.

Permits approved for the district included a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Clean Water Act Section 404 Individual Permit; a California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) Section 1602 Streambed Alteration Agreement; and a California Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification.

“This was a long, hard learning process, but we are very happy with the outcome,” said Mike Edwards, the City’s director of engineering. “The process required understanding the technical side and political side of permitting to get the downtown envisioned by the City and the water quality improvements sought by the regulatory agencies.”

Edwards offers the following insights about the City’s environmental permitting experience.

Understanding Resource Agencies’ Roles & Needs

Edwards said understanding what motivates each resource agency’s decisions is key. The USACE saw the project as an opportunity to enhance the creek as an uninterrupted riparian corridor and place it under management of a conservation easement. The RWQCB understood the City’s vision and saw it as an opportunity to improve water quality in the watershed by implementing state-of-the-art best management practices (BMPs) that were lacking in the City. The CDFG saw an opportunity to improve wildlife movement and connectivity by replacing several at-grade crossings with bridges.

“It’s important to meet with the agencies, keep an open mind, be willing to go back to the drawing board and be patient,” Edwards said.

He said the City benefitted from its staff working collaboratively with Dudek’s environmental permitting specialists, Sherri Miller and Tricia Wotipka, who interfaced with the agencies and provided the technical analysis of the 12 alternatives needed for the agencies to identify the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” (LEDPA).

“For any city going through this process,” Edwards said, “it is important to have a consultant who really understands each agency’s needs, and can translate it in a way that enables the city to develop solutions to achieve its goals while meeting the agencies’ needs.”

Edwards said working effectively with the USACE resulted from the City signing a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) Section 214 agreement allowing it to fund dedicated USACE staff and to expedite review, and working with a USACE project manager “who was patient and provided excellent feedback.”

Innovating in Phased Water Quality Treatment

From the project’s start, Edwards said, the City thought water quality enhancement was a key element.

San Marcos Creek and Lake San Marcos, which the creek drains into, are both listed as impaired. Industrial, agriculture, residential and commercial development drain into the creek without a single BMP in place.

The solution leverages the planned linear parkway’s passive-use greenbelt to construct during Phase 1 a bio-retention treatment areas to handle all public infrastructure runoff and some private development runoff.

The RWQCB initially rejected shared facilities, preferring that private and public developments be responsible separately for their projects. The City’s stormwater manager, Erica Ryan, convinced the resource agencies the shared facility provided significant advantages of:

  • Immediate water quality treatment by constructing the facility in Phase 1 rather than implementing water quality measures piecemeal over the project’s 20-year build out
  • Guaranteed maintenance/management funding through a community facility district supported by private developer fees
  • Implementing and managing the facility by a single agency at a sub-watershed and sub-regional scales
  • Streamlining oversight and reporting to the RWQCB

“By focusing on water quality and stormwater management improvement the City not only did the right thing, but got the agencies on our side,” Edwards said.

Developing “Purpose & Need”

“Like many cities, we had ignored the value of developing and restoring our downtown creek,” Edwards said. “We realized the creek is a valuable amenity and wanted to focus our efforts on cleaning up the creek, managing it and building a promenade and bridges to enhance public interaction with the creek.”

When the City submitted a specific plan centered on the creek, the regulatory agencies pushed back on “purpose and need.” Purpose and need is the regulatory basis for developing alternatives required in an environmental impact statement.

The agencies said the City’s detailed plan limited alternatives analysis and was too specifically tied to the creek for a commercial and residential development that was not water dependent (a Section 404 element). Using the designation “downtown” in the plan was a problem.

“Initially, the agencies telling us we needed more alternatives was discouraging,” Edwards said. “We came to understand they weren’t asking to completely revisit our vision, but to open the door for a range of alternatives from reducing the size to shifting locations.

“The final purpose and need allowed for nine on-site and three off-site alternatives. If you have a sound project, it should be able to go through the alternatives analysis and result in something you like.”

Defining a Downtown

The success of a downtown is tied to its size and ease of access for employees and customers. The City envisioned a downtown minimum depth of three blocks as essential; the USACE noted that a depth of two blocks would reduce impacts.

The City’s challenge was producing data to support its position because no established guidelines exist specifically defining “a downtown.”

The City asked Dudek to perform an extensive literature review to conduct a comparative study of 11 notable downtowns. Edwards said the comparative study was key in showing typical downtowns are three to seven blocks deep and developments two blocks deep tend to be more like strip mall development. The City was able to preserve a three-block-deep downtown for most of the district.