Thursday, February 23, 2012
John Turner has lived in Valley Center for 14 years, with a sweeping view of a broad valley dotted with avocado trees and ranch houses. He’s driven down the road from his home to meet his son off the school bus.
“When I hear about cutting red tape to expedite decisions about land use,” Turner says, “especially in rural areas like Valley Center, I’m very concerned that the people of Valley Center will not have the greatest input into that land use.”
Turner says it’s not that the people of Valley Center are against development, but development needs to be carefully thought out. He says it shouldn’t be pushed through just because the county needs tax dollars or it might create jobs.
County supervisors are about to vote on recommendations to cut red tape to speed up the permitting process, but residents are afraid their local planning groups are going to be cut too.
Just up the narrow winding road, Hans Britsch has a cactus farm. He nearly lost it four years ago when plans surfaced for a road that would have cut right though his property. The planned road was designed to access a new development that wasn’t permitted, an oversight someone on the planning groups spotted.
“After three years of fighting,” Britsch says, “we were able to finally get the road off the map, but without the help of the planning group it would never have been possible.”
Back near a new four-lane highway that has been built to connect Valley Center with Escondido, Deb Hofler walks though an open field.
“This is where the North Village is slated to go," she said, pointing across the field with the mountains beyond. “Right here is going to be a shopping center and then there’s a stream where the oaks will be preserved. And behind them you’ll have residential areas with townhouses.”
The population in Valley Center is expected to double in the next 20 years, part of the overall growth projected for San Diego County. Hofler, who owns a veterinarian hospital up the road, is a member of the Valley Center Planning Group.
“We’re the ones on the ground,” she says, the wind whipping her long hair, “we know what people want. We know what will sell in our community, and we work with developers to come up with a product that is a much better product than they could have come up with themselves. And we do it for free. “
This major new development will bring 800 new homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial space to Valley Center. The developer, Jerry Gaughan of Valley Center View Properties, says he has saved money because of the public workshops put on by the planning group.
“It’s so important,” Gaughan says, “that the information we receive early on, before we really start drawing anything, helps us design something the community really wants. That’s better than building something we think they might want and then finding out, after we’ve spent all our money—which in some cases is hundred of thousands of dollars—that it’s something they don’t want.”
Gaughan says his company designed the village to preserve the creek with the oaks, and in fact designed the town center around that. He says projects that are denied are often designed by developers who don’t work with local planning groups.
“These types of projects are people who are coming and basically trying to force their own ideas,” he says, “instead of the ideas of the people that live there, who have to live with it."
But some developers have found it impossible to work cooperatively with local planning groups. Land engineer Ivan Fox of San Dieguito Engineering, Inc., said he’s had experience with planning groups where individual members have their own personal agendas, people who are never satisfied.
“Sometimes we use the term 'CAVE,'" Fox said, “Citizens Against Virtually Everything.”
Fox is in favor of a recommendation by the county’s Red Tape Reduction Task Force to eliminate planning groups.
“I want to remove the high cost,” Fox said, "There’s a tremendous cost associated with land development and I don’t think in the end we end up with a better product, we just end up with a more expensive product.“
Fox likes the idea of more limited public input, not from an elected planning group, and only in the early stages of a project.
Supervisor Bill Horn, who initiated the Red Tape Reduction Task Force, knows there is too much support for local planning groups among his colleagues on the board to eliminate them altogether. But he would like to limit their role.
“These communities can still have their planning groups,” he said at a meeting in December, “I think the issues here is the liability.”
Horn cites the risks of paying for legal defense if planning groups violate the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. Ironically, it was the supervisors who got slapped with a threatened law suit for violating the Brown Act last month when they went ahead and approved several of the Red Tape Reduction Task Force recommendations without notifying the public that they planned to take action that day.
Deb Hofler says the only Brown Act violation on the part of a local planning group that she is aware of was more than a decade ago. She is concerned that Horn intends to distance the county from the planning groups and sideline their advisory role.
“If you look at everything that he has done," she says, “it makes you suspicious. We know that he’s pro property rights, and it makes you very suspicious that he wants to curtail the democratic process so that the developers can get their projects in more quickly.”
Back on the edge of the narrow road where Turner lives, the school bus has pulled up. Turner gives a last thought on why he wants to keep an elected planning group to represent his views.
“A lot of people are too busy with their own lives,” Turner said, “raising kids, trying to make a living, much less having time to go to meetings. When you shorten the process down and eliminate some of that input, I think what you get is a very bad decision and one you have to live with for many years.”
With that, he crosses the road, high fives his son who is jumping off the bus, and the two of them drove back home.
The county supervisors will take up the recommendations of the Red Tape Reduction Task Force again on Feb. 29, though there is no guarantee they will vote.