Mission Gorge Regional Park. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego County supervisors Wednesday unanimously approved policies focused on environmental sustainability, and offered residents and businesses new tools to expand the natural habitat.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer teamed up with board Chairman Nathan Fletcher and Vice Chairwoman Nora Vargas to propose reorganizing county departments around sustainability, including a formal plan, and creating a native plant policy to preserve regional biodiversity.

“Sustainability is not just something we need in our communities, but also in how local government works,” Lawson-Remer said in a statement after the vote.

She added that the new policies will “make climate action a part of our culture and daily operations.”

Fletcher reminded the public that Wednesday’s vote was just the beginning of the environmental policy overhaul, which will feature “robust stakeholder engagement” and public input.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure this region remains special,” Fletcher said. “Native plants are the constant reminder of the amazing species found only here.”

Earlier this year, the board supported proposals to address climate change, including making San Diego the largest county in the United States to commit to zero carbon emissions by 2035.

Drought-tolerant native plants provide habitat for wildlife, reduce water consumption and further the county’s climate action strategy, according to Lawson-Remer’s office. She added that without an investment in native landscaping, “we’re at risk of losing that vital biodiversity,” which in turn can negatively affect soil and animal species.

To encourage more residents and businesses to add more native plants to their yards, county policy will suggest best practices, incentives for retrofits, and equity-based resources and training.

Staffers will seek input from residents and the San Diego Regional Biological Working Group, with the goal of completing a draft policy for board approval by the year’s end, Lawson-Remer said.

Fletcher said the county will not require any resident or business to include native plants on their property.

Several county departments now handle sustainability-related tasks, including waste reduction, storm water management and energy procurement.

Supervisors directed staffers to review departmental structure and bring recommendations to the board either this year or in early 2022.

Lawson-Remer said she anticipates that each county department will offer transformational ideas, ranging from using less paper to transitioning to an all-electric fleet of vehicles.

Supervisor Jim Desmond was supportive of the proposals, but added that with the county’s many microclimates, what may grow well at the beach might not inland.

He and colleague Joel Anderson said it was important to have a full range of input, including from retail nurseries, farming associations and the UC Cooperative Extension Program.

Along with tying more eco-friendly policies, “let’s consider a consumer lens as well,” Anderson said.

Desmond said there are a lot of commercial nurseries in his distract that are nervous about any policy change that might limit them, “and I want to make sure they’re part of the process.”

Many who called in during a public comment period lauded the new eco-friendly direction.

Karin Zirk, a member of the volunteer group Friends of Rose Creek, said encouraging native plants will also help tourism, as those type of plants use less fertilizer, which means less damage to the county’s popular beaches.

Dan Silver, CEO of the Endangered Habitats League, said the policy shift is “well thought out and will move the county in a productive direction.”

Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, said her group was opposed to the county’s emphasis on native plants. According to the Farm Bureau, the native plant policy fails to account for horticulture-related concerns such fire risks, economics, seasonal plant viability and open space.

While such an idea is well-intended, Gbeh said she was “not sure how native plants will fit in overall county development.”

The Farm Bureau would prefer the county offer a public education program instead of an official policy, Gbeh added.

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