Here are some key stories to watch in the coming year, according to Union-Tribune reporters.
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UC San Diego’s housing crunch
Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said in June he might solve the school’s housing shortage by more than doubling the number of beds on campus to roughly 40,000 over the next decade or so. That would enable UCSD to meet long-term demand.
But there are growing concerns among students and the surrounding community that the campus is growing too fast. Enrollment hit nearly 43,000 in September, a record. It’s likely to hit 50,000 within a decade, turning UCSD into a “Super U.”
The school’s once pastoral atmosphere is evaporating as UCSD races to add more buildings. It is currently in various stages of construction on four dormitory towers that are each more than 20 stories tall. Campus officials say it is likely that they will add two more towers of that size. The number could grow further when UCSD unveils plans for a 4,000-bed student village in a couple of years.
The expansion will further crowd the school’s already congested byways and make it harder to find something that’s been in short supply for years: parking.
— GARY ROBBINS
Uncertainty at the border
The future of immigration and U.S. border policies remain unclear going into 2023.
With ongoing lawsuits related to the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. immigration cases in Mexico, and Title 42, which blocks asylum seekers from crossing north and expels them if they do anyway, judicial orders will likely have an impact on what migration in the coming year looks like.
Immigration courts are facing a backlog of more than 2 million cases. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for many types of visa applications, had more than 8.6 million cases pending at the end of September, according to agency data.
Meanwhile, Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell has called for increased immigration to ease inflation. Yet, Congress remains unable to pass immigration-related legislation. Bills such as the Afghan Adjustment Act and the DREAM Act have long been stalled despite both having wide support among the public.
— KATE MORRISSEY
Drought heightens stakes over Colorado River
The fight over Colorado River water is likely to be one of the most closely watched environmental issues in the coming year.
The San Diego region gets about 60 percent of its water from the increasingly imperiled river. Less than 30 percent of the region’s supplies comes from local sources, such as desalination, groundwater and recycling, with the balance imported from parched Northern California.
A century of water law is now on the chopping block as federal officials scramble to stabilize the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead. Under threat of mandatory cutbacks from the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation, water agencies, including from California, Arizona and Nevada, are scrambling to reach an agreement by the end of January outlining voluntary reductions.
Perhaps surprisingly, the region’s wholesaler, the San Diego County Water Authority, maintains that a 2003 deal with the Imperial Irrigation District, or IID, for Colorado River water is a key part of insulating San Diegans from drought.
IID’s water is among the most protected on the river, with rights that exceed even the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. And farmers have used payments from the water authority to improve water efficiency in their fields, a model many have argued is necessary to replicate.
While the water authority is not a major player in the Colorado River negotiations, IID is front and center. San Diegans’ water security will likely be tied closely to the fate of farmers in Imperial Valley for years to come.
— JOSHUA EMERSON SMITH
Reshaped gun laws?
Text, history and tradition. That’s the new legal standard by which judges must analyze gun laws thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in a New York firearms case.
That new legal framework could bring sweeping changes to California’s gun laws in 2023 and beyond.
Now, each time a Second Amendment group challenges one of the state’s firearm restrictions, a judge must decide if the regulation is “rooted in the Second Amendment’s text, as informed by history,” and “must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
Several California gun laws are already getting a fresh look in San Diego federal court, where U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez — known for his firearm-friendly decisions — is handling many of the cases. He recently asked government attorneys defending four weapons laws to compile a spreadsheet containing historical firearm regulations to aid his analysis.
The new standard could lead Benitez and other judges to wipe out laws that ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, homemade “ghost guns” or frequent firearm purchases. If that happens, the coming year could bring answers as to whether the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, using the same new analysis, will uphold those decisions.
— ALEX RIGGINS
The growing cost of 101 Ash St.
The city of San Diego settled its legal dispute with the main defendants in the Ash Street financial mess this past summer, but the $132 million they agreed to pay has not made the problem go away.
The hangover from the lease-to-own deals for the former Sempra Energy headquarters at 101 Ash St. and the Civic Center Plaza is destined to last well into 2023 — and likely beyond.
First, the city will be spending $32,000 a day over the next 30 years to finance the new debt Mayor Todd Gloria and the City Council agreed to — a whopping $348 million.
The city also must refile its continuing lawsuit against real estate broker Jason Hughes, the former volunteer city adviser who collected $9.4 million in fees from the two leases. He has denied any wrongdoing but nonetheless faces two civil trials in April.
Meanwhile, former City Attorney Michael Aguirre has not gone away, either. He is appealing the dismissal of claims he filed over the deal on behalf of a city taxpayer.
And investigators for District Attorney Summer Stephan are pressing ahead with a long-running criminal probe of the two troubled leases.
They continue to review thousands of pages of records seized during searches of Hughes’ home, his business and the offices of Cisterra Development, the middleman company that collected millions in profit for selling the buildings to the city.
For now, 101 Ash St. remains vacant and unsafe to occupy.
Even though by the city’s own estimate the building is worth “virtually zero,” the city keeps investing in the property. In November, it agreed to pay a consultant $725,000 to develop future ideas for the downtown core — including those two buildings.
— JEFF MCDONALD
An ambitious climate plan takes shape
San Diego County will keep working to cut climate pollution through its regional decarbonization framework, a sweeping plan to become carbon-neutral before mid-century. The framework maps out ways the county and its cities can achieve net carbon zero — the point at which the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere equals the amount emitted.
It was introduced in 2021 with detailed proposals for scaling up renewable energy, expanding an electric vehicle charging network, electrifying buildings and using open space and agricultural land to capture and sequester carbon.
Amid concerns about the environmental impacts of large solar farms in East County, an updated report in August added more options for using already developed land for clean energy production. Those include installing more rooftop and urban solar, purchasing power from solar, wind or hydrothermal plants in the Imperial Valley and building new energy facilities on toxic brownfields.
This spring, county supervisors will consider even more nuts-and-bolts actions in the decarbonization playbook, which will spell out steps to scaling up renewable energy and cutting carbon, in coordination with local cities, universities and industry. They’ll also consider how workers can transition from fossil-fuel jobs to renewable energy jobs, and how public agencies can help build that workforce.
— DEBORAH SULLIVAN-BRENNAN
COVID’s long arm to extend through new year
Three years in, the coronavirus response is set to shift into a lower gear in 2023, with Gov. Gavin Newsom saying in October that he will follow the lead of the federal government and allow the emergency declaration first made in early 2020 to expire on Feb. 28.
Already, local government spending has dropped in 2022 with tracking and tracing activities and food assistance scaled back.
But viruses don’t have brains and are incapable of comprehending that emergency label. Virologists such as Dr. Davey Smith at UC San Diego Health do not expect this particular pathogen to stop evolving anytime soon.
The latest round of Omicron subvariants, Smith noted, do not appear to present the kind of threat that the first versions did.
“I don’t see a variant on the horizon that I’m terribly worried about at the moment,” Smith said. “Yes, they’re going to increase the number of infections, but, like the other Omicrons we have experienced, they don’t look that deadly.”
On the other hand, county records list 1,080 COVID-19-related deaths through mid-December. While it’s less than half the 2,717 who died in 2021 in San Diego County, it’s still an average of nearly three per day, generally those who are older than age 60 with other complicating medical conditions present when they become infected.
It’s a grim price and one that Davey said no one should expect to go away as the virus continues to evolve in 2023.
“We’re still probably going to have another 1,000 COVID deaths, which is not as high as it would be if it were Delta, but it’s still tragic,” Smith said.
— PAUL SISSON
Housing projects face headwinds
It happened south of Escondido. It happened in Santee. A year ago, it happened in Otay Ranch.
Developers have been repeatedly blocked from building new suburbs, as judges have sided with environmental groups worried about wildfires and climate change.
Those rulings come even as state lawmakers try to make it easier to build amid a lack of affordable housing.
While some projects are essentially dead — one 2,000-acre plot north of Escondido was finally sold to a spa — others may still be realized.
In Santee, critics of the proposed 3,000-home Fanita Ranch housing development won a victory when a judge ruled it wasn’t clear whether residents would be able to timely evacuate during a fire.
The court told the city council to pull back its approval, and leaders complied. But after the developer finished a study that found it would take between 20 minutes and 2 hours to get people to safety, the council re-approved the proposal.
A new lawsuit challenging that decision is now working its way through the courts.
— BLAKE NELSON
Still repairing the rail line
Coastal rail commuters can expect to see a lot of work on the railroad in 2023.
The San Diego Association of Governments is preparing to start the fifth phase in a series of seawalls, drainage ditches and soldier piles installed along the tracks on the Del Mar bluffs. The work is intended to slow the erosion that eats away the coastal cliffs at an average rate of 4 to 6 inches a year, threatening to undermine the tracks.
Construction is expected to start in June and continue through June 2026, typically between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but occasionally at night and on weekends to avoid trains. The 1.6-mile stretch of tracks goes between the city’s Seagrove Park and the overhead bridge at Torrey Pines State Beach.
Also in 2023, SANDAG will continue its preliminary work for moving the tracks off the bluffs to a new route through an inland tunnel beneath the city of Del Mar. The bluff stabilization projects are intended to keep the tracks safe where they are until the tunnel is finished, possibly as soon as 2035.
Repairs underway on a different trouble spot, a recurring landslide in San Clemente, are expected to be completed in February. Passenger train service between Oceanside and San Clemente has been suspended since Sept. 30 because of the slide and will resume when the stabilization work is finished.
— PHIL DIEHL
Homeless population keeps growing
It’s hard to imagine there will be much improvement in San Diego’s growing homeless population, which in the downtown area set record numbers month after month at year’s end, but many new shelter beds and services are expected to come online 2023.
In January, Chula Vista is expected to open a shelter consisting of 66 pallet homes, also called sleeping cabins, and it could double the program with a recent grant the city received from the county.
Also in South County, the San Diego Rescue Mission plans to open a 162-bed shelter in National City.
San Diego has plans to open a safe, legal camping area for homeless seniors, a first for the county, and Father Joe’s Village is hoping to have its own campsite in East Village.
More safe parking lots are planned, with one in San Diego and another in Vista. Also in North County, the Rescue Mission plans to open a 50-bed shelter in Oceanside.
The city of San Diego is planning a non-congregate shelter for families and a safe haven residential treatment program for people with addictions.
In Escondido, Interfaith Community Services will open a family shelter, while Catholic Charities has plans to expand its La Posada de Guadalupe shelter in Carlsbad, adding beds for women and mothers with children and expanding its operation into a navigation center to connect homeless people with resources.
— GARY WARTH
SDSU gang-rape case continues
The case is far from over.
In December, the District Attorney’s Office announced it would not file criminal charges against three former San Diego State University football players who were accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in October 2021.
While the decision closed a chapter in one of the county’s most-watched cases, a civil lawsuit and a university inquiry into the matter will continue this year.
News of the allegations broke over the summer, and additional details were made public when the young woman filed her lawsuit. She alleged she was raped at a College Area home not far from the university campus early Oct. 17, 2021, and accused three players: Matt Araiza, who was briefly a punter for the Buffalo Bills before the team learned of the lawsuit and dropped him, and former redshirt freshmen Zavier Leonard and Nowlin “Pa’a” Ewaliko.
It’s unclear how the district attorney’s decision will affect the civil case.
SDSU was sharply criticized for delaying its own investigation into the matter — a decision college officials said they made at the San Diego Police Department’s request. The university would eventually open an administrative inquiry to determine whether any of its policies were violated.
That effort will continue into 2023.
— LYNDSAY WINKLEY