Future Development Creates High Stakes For Tight Supervisors Race
If you visit Duncan McFetridge out in his rural Descanso home, you notice books on all the walls along with pictures and maps — on the ceiling.
Next to a Van Gogh print is pinned a large map of San Diego County.
McFetridge points up to the map — the colorful areas are the unincorporated parts of the county. That’s the area where the San Diego County Supervisors have land-use authority.
“I’m going to translate your unincorporated area by calling it wilderness, or farm land,” McFetridge said, gesturing up at the map. “That is the area outside, by definition, the urban areas.”
McFetridge, founder and president of Save Our Forest and Ranchlands, was largely responsible for a Citizens’ Initiative, which, for almost two decades, limited development in much of the Cleveland National Forest.
McFetridge said whoever is on the five-member Board of Supervisors will have a vote on the future of San Diego’s backcountry, from Valley Center down to Descanso.
“Those five districts cover the entire county,” he said. “So when those five representatives meet, they are literally speaking for everyone, so it’s not an urban versus an open space district — they represent all citizens of the entire county.”
"The housing crisis is connected to the forest crisis — it is connected to the climate crisis, because we’re not building our cities properly," McFetridge said. "Build your city properly, make it beautiful. You do not have to sprawl. So yes, this is a critical election to bring these universal values to the table."
Debating the issue
At a recent candidates’ forum in Escondido, incumbent Supervisor Dave Roberts, the lone Democrat on the board, faced off with Kristin Gaspar, the Republican Mayor of Encinitas. Gaspar is challenging Roberts for the District 3 seat on the Board of Supervisors.
District 3 covers north coastal cities from Del Mar up to Encinitas, Carmel Valley and along the Interstate 15 corridor from Tierrasanta up to Escondido.
The Supervisors have authority for many things, including law enforcement through the sheriff and the DA’s office, services for the indigent, like food stamps, services for the homeless and the mentally ill.
But many of those who attended the forum live in the unincorporated areas and are concerned about development. The forum was sponsored by the San Diego County Farm Bureau, so farmers attended, but also residents of Valley Center, shaken by the way the General Plan for growth is threatened by the proposed Lilac Hills residential development.
Supervisor Roberts said he would respect their community plans.
“We’ve got a General Plan here in the county and I believe voters are concerned about quality of life issues,” Roberts said. “They’re concerned about congestion, they’re concerned about over-development, and they want a supervisor that’s going to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough.’ That’s what I’ve been doing. We need to look at our communities and make sure we don’t have rampant overdevelopment.”
Roberts said independent political action committees have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to attacking him and supporting his opponent, with donations from the Building Industry Association and the Associated General Contractors.
“There’s a reason somebody has given my opponent over half a million dollars,” Roberts said. “They’re going to want something in return for that.”
Much of that PAC money has gone on TV ads attacking Roberts for problems in his office last year.
Gaspar says her personal campaign has raised more money since the primary than Roberts, even without independent political action committees.
“Land use is a critical issue in our county,” she said. “We know that we have an affordability issue in our county. We have a dwindling amount of precious open space. It’s going to take someone who’s pretty special to balance those two interests.”
“The only way to resolve some of the affordability crisis is to diversify the housing options that are available throughout the region, and one major role of the county board is to make sure that we do diversify the housing opportunities throughout the region,” Gaspar said.
San Diego Building Industry Association Vice President Matt Adams said there’s a reason money is pouring into this race to support Gaspar.
“Jurisdictions, (the Supervisors) hold the keys to everything,” Adams said. “They will tell us what we can build, where we can build it, when we can build it and how much we can build. They hold the keys to everything — they are our partners in the land-use business.”
Term limits kicking in
Long-time political consultant Tom Shepard said as urban neighborhoods fight more density, the battle over the backcountry is heating up.
“Most of the cities in San Diego County are largely built out,” Shepard said. ”There’s not going to be significant large residential growth in most cities, and in most cities, residents are reluctant to approve further densification in their own neighborhoods. So the question is, where will new growth occur? And a logical location for new growth is in the unincorporated areas of the county.”
This election is just the beginning of what will be a major shift on the County Board of Supervisors. After more than two decades of little change, Shepard said term limits will kick-in in two years. Within four years, everyone on the board today will be gone.
“Supervisor Ron Roberts seat is likely in 2018 when he’s termed out, to go Democratic,” Shepard said. “And in 2020, Supervisor Greg Cox’s seat is likely to be represented by a Democrat. So District 3 likely ends up being a potential swing seat.”
The battle over District 3 takes on major long-term implications when seen in that light.
Back in Descanso, McFetridge feeds his chickens.
He, too, is for development, he said.
“We should be encouraging development in the right place,” McFetridge said. “We need houses, we need a beautiful city. The problem is, historically, the easy money is in sprawl.”