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San Diego County Fast-Tracks Waivers To General Plan For New Housing

Harmony Grove Village, a new housing development seen in the distance from El...

Photo by Alison St John

Above: Harmony Grove Village, a new housing development seen in the distance from Elfin Forest Preserve, July 16, 2018.

San Diego County Weighs Fast-Tracking Waivers To General Plan For New Housing


Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News


Years of community planning may be abandoned in an effort to address San Diego’s housing shortage. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday will take the first of several votes that could ultimately allow developers to build approximately 10,000 new homes.

Reported by Katie Schoolov

New housing in the unincorporated areas of San Diego County is controlled by the Board of Supervisors. Jessica Northrup, of the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services, said that in the last year, the county has approved only 1,090 new housing permits.

But in the next three months, the board is poised to open the door to permits for 10,000 more.

High on a hillside in North County’s unincorporated area, you can see new houses springing up on lots in Harmony Grove in the valley below. Elfin Forest resident JP Theberge said the local community agreed to 700 homes in this rural valley west of Escondido. But developers are now proposing 700 more, on land that was supposed to be protected from development. Theberge said none of the homes will be affordable, even to middle-class families earning San Diego’s median income.

“Some of these projects should have at least 20 percent of their projects affordable to the median income,“ he said. “At the moment, none of them are affordable to the median income earners.”

Theberge calculates that a family earning the area median-family income of $82,000 a year can afford a house priced at $295,000 without paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

The homes in Harmony Grove Village are selling for between $550,000 and $900,000. The purchase price does not include homeowners’ fees, which add a few hundred dollars a month. The developer did not respond to questions about how well the houses are selling.

"Bundling" Strategy

In the next three months, the supervisors are poised to open the door to permits for 10,000 more homes. Theberge said the supervisors are under so much pressure to encourage new development that they have found a way to circumvent a limit on how many changes they can make to the General Plan for growth.

“State law does limit General Plan amendments to four per year, so what they’ve done is, they’ve come up with a technique or tactic, where they are going to hear multiple General Plan amendments at once and they’re going to treat that as one amendment,” Theberge said.

Not Affordable, But Attainable

Next to the construction site where Harmony Grove Village is being built in phases, fields blend into low, wooded hills. Developers can buy land like this relatively inexpensively, precisely because it is not zoned for development. Then they request an amendment to the General Plan: a change in the zoning. On Wednesday, the supervisors will vote on two North County amendments: Valiano and Harmony Grove South.

Gary London is a consultant to the developers applying for permission to build.

“No question there’s an efficiency in building large, rancho projects,” London said. “The problem is, today most developments are smaller because we’ve run out of land. In fact, the only land that’s available, whether it’s zoned correctly or not, is in the unincorporated area. That’s why there’s so much pressure to try to make some of that land available for development.”

London said developers have just as much trouble getting approval to build on urban land that is zoned for development. Though planners favor infill development, many suburban cities are resisting growth in order to protect their community character. And London said, young families don’t want to live in urban apartments; they want single-family homes to raise their children.

“The greatest need that we have right now are for families that currently live here that are facing this crisis of, ‘Can I continue to live here and raise a family, or should I move out of town?’” he said.

At a recent county planning commission meeting, Debra Rosen was one of those who pleaded for more housing.

“I lost my daughter at 25 years old,” Rosen said. “And I lost her to Idaho. It was really hard. When she left, I said to her, ‘I will help you with the down payment,’ and she said, ‘You can give me a down payment but I can’t afford the mortgage.’ And it’s because there’s not enough homes for sale here.”

London dismisses concerns that the new houses are not affordable for the average San Diegan, and instead calls them “attainable.” He said North County is where new jobs are being created, and employers complain their employees can’t find housing.

London calculates that the county has only built about 20,000 new units of the 85,000 that were possible under the General Plan, which passed in 2011 after a decade of meetings, a process that cost millions.

London said it is time the county let go of its General Plan.

“Because it was a bad plan,” London said. “I’m sorry that we spent all of that money, but now we need to make adjustments to the General Plan to accommodate what the real growth needs in the county are.“

Profitable, But Not Sustainable

“For anyone to suggest that the General Plan is a bad plan is denying 10 years of diligence and thoughtful consideration that went into designing and developing the plan,” said Nicole Capretz of San Diego city’s Climate Action Campaign. “There was consensus among all the stakeholders that we were creating the housing and the transportation infrastructure that we needed."

Capretz said sustainable planning includes infill development and good transit planning, not housing developments in far-flung parts of the county, generating longer commutes.

“It’s disappointing that people are putting profit over the need to ensure we are reducing our climate emissions,” she said, “and creating the quality of life we need to survive the coming climate crisis.”

Capretz objects to the county’s strategy of bundling amendments to the General Plan to circumvent legal limits.

“Not only is it troubling that the county is considering major sprawl projects to add housing where it’s not supposed to go,” she said, “but it’s even more troubling that the county is abusing its power, undermining their own process that they set in place to ensure there was thoughtful considering of their General Plan. They’re throwing that out the window and accelerating the adoption of these sprawl projects.”

Two projects in Harmony Grove and a project in Otay Mesa near the border called Otay 250 are just the first of seven major amendments to the General Plan that the Board of Supervisors is poised to approve this summer. They include Lilac Hills, which the voters rejecetd in 2016, and Newland Sierra, a new version of a project the supervisors narroly rejected in 2009

Theberge has launched a group, Grow the San Diego Way, to study how San Diego can grow in a way that preserves the public interest and quality of life. He said if the supervisors really want to address the shortage of affordable housing, they should require some affordable housing in return for granting the waivers.

“If you’re going to give away sound planning and kind of throw the whole process away,” he said, “because that’s what this is — 10,000 houses is basically saying, ‘We don’t care about the General Plan anymore, let’s just randomly build anywhere and everywhere at all costs,’ then you need to at least secure something from the developers.”

Photo credit: Tony Zuniga

Proposed development projects requesting amendments from the county's General Plan, summer 2018. July 25th 2018

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider five projects in North County, and two major projects in Otay Mesa on July 25, Sept. 26 and Oct 31. So far, the supervisors have not required that any of the new houses be affordable, even for most middle-class San Diegans.

Years of community planning may be abandoned in an effort to address San Diego’s housing shortage. On Wednesday, San Diego County Supervisors will take the first of several votes that could ultimately allow developers to build about 10,000 new homes.


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