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The EIR’s out: Public opinion now being heard

The public has until early May to comment on a report on the Salk Institute’s plans to expand its facility by more than 200,000 square feet.

The research institute on Torrey Pines Mesa is several years and more than $3 million into an effort to have its Master Plan approved by the city. One of the most significant milestones in that process came March 22, when the city released the Environmental Impact Report on the proposed project, which would add new labs, support and dormitory buildings around the existing Salk campus.

Members of the public now have until May 7 to comment on the Environmental Impact Report, which analyzes the project’s impacts in terms of land use, visual quality and neighborhood character, biological resources, historic resources, traffic and circulation, air quality, noise, water quality, geology and paleontology. Copies of the report are available to be viewed by the public in the Salk Institute’s facilities department at 10010 North Torrey Pines Road and at La Jolla Riford Public Library at 7555 Draper Ave.

After the public comment period, the Salk Institute will have the opportunity to respond to comments before a final Environmental Impact Report is completed. Salk’s Master Plan would then be heard by the City Planning Commission before moving on to City Council for a final decision.

The Salk Institute, which opened on the Torrey Pines Mesa in 1965, proposes to expand onto both of two bluffs, called the North and South Peninsula, that extend out toward the ocean from its current facility. The institute hopes to construct temporary housing for visiting scholars and a daycare facility for use by institute employees on the South Peninsula. They want to construct a building for administrative offices and a community center on the North Peninsula. In addition, the institute hopes to add a new lab building to the east of its current facility that would front Torrey Pines Road, with two levels of underground parking beneath it. They plan to build new lab facilities under the institute’s north lawn, as well as another three-story underground parking structure.

The report found the project would cause significant, unmitigable impacts in only one area: traffic and circulation. A traffic analysis found the project would result in an additional 350 vehicle trips per day at the Genesee Avenue interchange with Interstate 5. The impact is unmitigable because the city and CalTrans do not have funding assured to improve the interchange. The Salk Institute would be required to contribute $1,000 per additional vehicle trip, for a total of about $353,000, to the improvement fund, but no work could be done on the interchange until the city and CalTrans come up with their share of the project costs.

The biological impacts of the project were found to be potentially significant but mitigable in the Environmental Impact Report. The project would result in impacts of nearly two acres of sensitive upland habitats and could potentially impact sensitive species such as the coastal California gnatcatcher, a small songbird. The impacts would be mitigated by adding three acres of Salk Institute property to the city-regulated Multiple Habitat Protection Area. The Environmental Impact report recommends prohibiting construction within 500 feet of the protected area during the gnatcatcher’s breeding season from March to August.

Mark Rowson of Latitude 33 Planning and Engineering, which is handling the expansion proposal, said that the biological resources of the surrounding area were further protected by the institute’s decision not to develop any areas classified as steep slope. The proposed new facilities on the North Peninsula were also moved to the east to protect environmentally valuable vernal pools in the area.

The project was also found to have potentially significant impacts on historical and paleontological resources. The coastal bluffs onto which the institute is proposing to expand contain Ardath shale, a soil type known to contain historical resources from as far back as 20,000 years ago. The site could also potentially contain Native American resources.

“There are no known resources, but there is a potential,” Rowson said.

That potential impact would be mitigated by hiring a historical resources monitor to observe grading during construction and make decisions on how to proceed if any historical items are found.

The Environmental Impact report also analyzed several alternatives to the Master Plan proposed by the Salk Institute. One alternative was drafted by neighbors to the south of the Salk Institute, who want the development planned for the South Peninsula to be clustered with other development on the North Peninsula. Rowson said that alternative was found to produce more impacts than the Salk Institute’s proposal, including blocking views from the public right of way on on Torrey Pines Scenic Road and causing additional traffic on the road.

“The end result was that (the neighbor’s proposal) was rejected because of the additional impacts,” Rowson said. “The conclusion was that the project proposed (by the Salk Institute) was the most environmentally sensitive project.”