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County Supervisors Make Two Major Decisions

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Video published March 26, 2010 | Download MP4 | View transcript

Above: The San Diego County Board of Supervisors decide on the future of Merriam Mountain development project and slash their discretionary funds.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): This week the County Board of Supervisors voted against a proposed 2600-home Merriam Mountain project. It was to be a major master plan development for rural North County, just northwest of Escondido. The planning process had taken 10 years and for many San Diegans the vote was a surprise. KPBS Senior Metro Reporter Alison St John is here to explain. So, Alison first tell us about why this vote was such a major vote.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS REPORTER): This was a seminal vote Gloria because really what it did was set a precedent for how growth in the unincorporated areas of San Diego County, and that’s where sprawl is going to be happening, in the undeveloped areas, a precedent for how decisions will be made as to where that growth will happen.

PENNER: And so the vote was 3-2 against. Why was that a surprise?

ST JOHN: Well it was because Supervisor Ron Roberts, who had not been present at the first hearing, because he was absent at hearing in Sacramento, asked for a re-hearing. He said this was too important an issue just to let slide. It failed on a 2-2 vote prior. And so everybody assumed that probably he was going to do something that would reverse that vote and perhaps pass it. So the fact that Ron Roberts choose, nobody knew what he was going to do, so there was a five-hour hearing, he didn’t breathe a word of his intentions until the very end and then he voted against it.

PENNER: Oh the reaction must have been intense.

ST JOHN: You could hear the cheering in the corridor.

PENNER: Who is for it and who is against it?

ST JOHN: Well there were a lot of people for it, in fact as well. And they were obviously pretty disappointed. There were more than 100 people who testified. And the people who were for it I guess were obviously the developer and people who were thinking that development in the backcountry ought to be along existing freeways, it was off 15. People who live in the area who felt like there was new shopping centers to make it available, that there would be a widening of the road to make it safer. People who were against it, were people who said look we’ve been planning for growth in the backcountry for years and this is not where we said we wanted it to be. They also said that there were fire problems, water problems, traffic problems and all these problems. All of that.

PENNER: Ok, very understandable. We did talk with Supervisor Roberts immediately after the vote and asked him to explain his objections to Merriam Mountain.

RON ROBERTS (County Board of Supervisors): Normally when we're resolving something we will get to the general plan, we'll use the general plan as a basis. Even if it's a change to the gen plan we'll have a context to the gen plan, the general plan will suggest strategies if you will. Our general plan is so out of date- you can't do that. In addition, we’ve got the new requirements of something called Senate Bill 375. This is legislation to implement basically the California effort in the global warming and it's requiring us to reconsider as to how we should allow density to occur and where it should occur. And when you look to where we are in that process it doesn't suggest that this is the type of thing that you should be going forward with. There's no question about it. This type of large subdivision in a semi rural area, if not completely rural, that's the way business was done I think in the 20th century. What we're entering into is a period when we're going to be far more urban. We're going to grow incrementally. We're going to grow out the edges of where we have those services. And it's not just the sewer and water but it's going to be transportation. And not just token transportation but real transportation systems.

PENNER: Here you have you know a major development that would have offered a lot of employment in construction. What concern is there that this would have signaled some moratorium on building and that the construction industry is going to go even farther into a hole?

ST JOHN: That was one of the major arguments, was that it would have provided more jobs for people. And that’s the way the construction industry is reacting. They’re saying well if this project, that was so carefully scrutinized, was not given the go-ahead, it amounts to a moratorium on growth. But at the same time I think it’s not going too far to say that this is indicative of the fact that global warming is affecting the way we are growing and that’s what Supervisor Ron Roberts was saying. His presence on that Air Resources Board really gives him a sense of why it’s so important to curb greenhouses. And that’s one of the things this project did not do, in his view.

PENNER: So, we do have all these new California laws to control global warming. So, you think that there’s a chance this is going to affect future developments as well.

ST JOHN: I think it’s sending a message to developers that they need to take into account the new legislation that says you have to be incorporating things like public transit and ways of cutting greenhouse gases into your development plan, even more than this one did. And I think the laws have changed since this one began so it’s upped the ante really for developers to be finding ways to cut greenhouse gases.

PENNER: It was interesting that Ron Roberts also said that the general plan is out of date and that it’s useless as a guide for approving new projects. Why is it out of date?

ST JOHN: Well the general plan was made decades ago and it’s being updated right now. It’s been in the works for more than a decade. It’s coming before the Supervisors in the fall. And that process, which is a parallel process of deciding how to decide growth – that process incorporates much more consultation with local communities. And that’s the process that appears to have won in this case.

PENNER: Well, on another matter, earlier in the week the Supervisors dealt with an issue that has been haunting them for years. The controversial neighborhood reinvestment program - a discretionary pot of money called the “Supervisor’s Slush Fund” by its detractors. How does that work?

ST JOHN: Well, each supervisor gets $2 million a year to distribute as they choose. A discretionary fund as it were. And that adds up to $10 million. So they have each one has given it to very different kinds of people. Some people, like Pam Slater-Price, have chosen arts organizations, like the opera. Supervisor Bill Horn has given it to a lot of non-profits up in Fallbrook – boys and girls clubs. Each supervisor has their own particular flavor of how they distribute the money.

PENNER: Why has it received so much criticism?

ST JOHN: Well people see this as a way of, in a sense, currying favor. I mean there is, the City Council members for example don’t have money they can just give away to different people. Everything has to go through a vote of the whole council. So this is a unique situation where each supervisor has money that they can give away to supporters and in a way, buy support back.

PENNER: So here was a public relations problem and how did the supervisors decide to fix it?

ST JOHN: They cut the baby - they said let’s half it. We’ll just give away $1 million each now. And they said it was because of the budget. They said that they will reserve the possibility of restoring it again if the budget improves.

PENNER: Ok, well, thank you. Alison St John.

ST JOHN: My pleasure.

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