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San Diego County Wrestles Over Future Growth In The Backcountry


San Diego County’s updated blue print for future growth in the unincorporated areas has been in the works for more than a decade. It’s back in public hearings today.

San Diego County’s updated blue print for future growth in the unincorporated areas has been in the works for more than a decade. It’s back in public hearings today. The County’s planning commission will consider the debate over where to build in the backcountry to accommodate future growth. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on it next year.

Devon Muto is head of advanced planning for the county. He has maps all over his office walls. One of them shows the two million acres of unincorporated backcountry broken up into blocks of color.

“On this map,” Muto says, as he points to the state and federal lands, “everything in the gray and the white - that’s outside of our jurisdiction. But everything else that is more of a vibrant color, it’s private land or it’s a local special agency. And all of those lands are considered under our land use jurisdiction.”

“So, for example, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Rainbow, Ramona, Alpine, Jamul, they’re all in your district?” I asked.

“That’s correct,” Muto replied. “Those are some of the communities that we plan specifically for. If you go to those communities, they each have their own character and identity. A lot of what our plan is trying to do is retain that, while allowing for some growth within those communities.”

Muto says current projections estimate San Diego's unincorporated areas will have to accommodate over 200,000 more residents by 2030. But where to put them?

Jack Phillips heads the planning group for Valle de Oro on Highway 94. He’s been involved in this planning process for a dozen years and he says one of key issues is lot size. More density means smaller lots. Many people moved to rural communities on the outskirts of San Diego to get away from high density living, and Phillips says they don’t want to loose control of new development.

“The unincorporated communities, many of them are much larger than the independent cities in the county,” Phillips says. “And so we feel we definitely have standing in how the land use plans in our communities goes forward.”

The county’s updated plan actually allows for fewer new homes than its current plan, partly because planners assume more people will live in each house.

Developers and economists are pushing for more flexibility in where new development can happen. Ruben Barrales of San Diego's Chamber of Commerce says the update may be economically unrealistic. “We want to make sure we don’t create an unsustainable model that doesn’t allow for appropriate growth in the unincorporated areas,” he said.

But planners like Muto say this plan has to take into account changes in state law, such as a new requirement to fund fire protection.

“Historically,” Muto said, “ if you didn’t have a fire station in that area, now you’re being required to. That’s a big change in services - so where is that funding going to come from?”

The need for better fire protection, and the lack of water sources in the backcountry, means the plan update must reduce urban sprawl. It puts less growth out in the far reaches of the county and more near built up areas.

But back country residents who wouldn’t be able to subdivide their land for development want compensation. That’s a problem too, said Muto, “Because if you’re going to provide someone with compensation, you really need to have a source a funding source for that, and there really isn’t a good funding source. So it’s a difficult issue. “

Yet another difficult issue is the new focus on environmental sustainability. The state attorney general says San Diego County’s General Plan Update doesn’t do enough to mitigate increased carbon emissions from a growing population. Muto says 95 percent of their territory doesn’t have access to frequent public transport, and that’s up to the San Diego Association of Governments or SANDAG, which administers transit funding.

SANDAG is working on its future plans too. In fact, just this summer it began a forecast looking beyond 2030 out to 2050. Principal planner, Coleen Clementson says the new forecasts suggest more houses will have to be built somewhere for the people who are coming. “Right now 70,000 housing units is the projected shortfall in what our plans and policies would allow between 2030 and 2050,” she says.

That’s good news for developers. But Jack Phillips of Valle De Oro hopes this new wrinkle doesn’t upset the conclusions of the draft General Plan Update. “Both sides may hate it,” he laughs, “but we feel it’s a good balance. What we don’t want is some monolithic dictation that makes the whole county look the same.”

Meanwhile, as the Draft Update goes into its final year of negotiation. Developers are bringing plans to the county supervisors for major new housing developments in rural areas north of Escondido. Community stakeholders hope the plan will be approved before its recommendations are bypassed by new projects already in the works.

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