San Diego County Struggles With Shrinking Backcountry
GLORIA PENNER (Host): Open space in the backcountry could shrink. This week the San Diego County Planning Commission held hearings on an updated blueprint for future growth in San Diego's rural areas. The plan has been in the works for 11 years, and the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on it next year, but the process will inevitably be met with controversy as KPBS Senior Metro Reporter Alison St John will explain. Welcome Alison. So why don't we start off by explaining what does this county general plan do?
ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS News): Well it's part of the attempt to find out where another million people who are expected to come to this county by 2030 are going to live. And at a very personal level, it's how many houses could I build on my on my property. It's density is what it comes down to.
PENNER: Okay, what areas of the county are we talking about?
ST JOHN: If you look at a map of the county all the 18 cities are along the coast and then the backcountry is 2 million acres of which about a third of that is under the jurisdiction of the county. That includes places like Valley Center, Pine Valley, Alpine, Jamul, Ramona- all those small communities that we see when we drive out to the backcountry, all the way out to Borrego Springs.
PENNER: And these are the ones that we think of as kind of rural countries, rural areas having a country atmosphere, but if there's a possibility that they're going to change, they'll be totally different, won't they?
ST JOHN: Well, that's part of the issue. You've got two issues here really. At the moment, the issue of fire protection has become more important. We've talked about trying to prevent urban sprawl, but now the issue of how are we going to protect the communities that are way out there and don't have a fire truck within 20 minutes drive of them. Also, water, ground water, a lot of the communities out there depend on ground water and I heard someone at yesterday's hearing saying, "They use to get it when they drove 300 feet, now they have to go sometimes 2,000 feet." So, they're trying to bring the development back closer in to the communities that are around San Diego. But, of course, those communities don't really want to see a lot of density either. They went to live there because they like the rural feel.
PENNER: Why are they addressing this now? This seems like this is a long road down the road.
ST JOHN: Until 2030? I tell you Gloria, it's already happening. I mean there are developers with plans in the works for communities up the I-15 for another 30,000 people. Merriam Mountain is just about to be, to go before the supervisors for approval. And there are densities in some of these developers' proposals which are not even included in the original plan. So, the chances are that unless this general plan gets passed, densities are going to pop up in places where planners would really rather not see them.
PENNER: So, it really has teeth in it? Once that general plan is passed, they can actually stop development if it's not part of the general plan.
ST JOHN: Well, it lays out the framework. It has to do with zoning. A lot of zoning would actually change, so it would affect developers, it would affect individual property-owners who thought they could subdivide their land in perhaps maybe seventy homes are now being told, "You can only have two." So, it will make a big difference both at the individual and at the developer level.
PENNER: Now, when you're talking about land use, there's controversy, always. So, is there a clear delineation between who's for the change and who's against it?
ST JOHN: Well, many of the communities have planning groups and they've been working really hard on their own particular plans, and those have been incorporated into this general plan. Right now, the county's planning commission, which is made-up of seven appointed people, is going to do some fine-tuning. And, of course, at this point, there's a lot of people attempting to get exceptions from these plans. There are developers who would like to get exceptions, there are individual property owners who are hoping to get exceptions from this plan before it gets through. So, I think they'll be a lot of joshing for attention in these last few months and the planning commission will have a hard job of coming up with a recommendation for the supervisors.
PENNER: Okay. And meanwhile, the developers are getting active.
ST JOHN: We should keep our eyes on that.
PENNER: Okay, thank-you very much, Alison St John.