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SD County Updates Its General Plan After 30 Years

The Larry and Arby Johnson live in a Ranchhouse in Campo, 50 miles east of San Diego.
Alison St John
The Larry and Arby Johnson live in a Ranchhouse in Campo, 50 miles east of San Diego.
San Diego County Updates Its General Plan After 30 Years
Tomorrow, San Diego County Supervisors hold public hearings on a new General Plan to manage the growth in unincorporated areas. Reactions to the draft plan are very varied.

By the year 2050, more than a million additional people will live in San Diego County. About 200,000 of them will move into San Diego’s unincorporated areas, outside the city boundaries.

Tomorrow, San Diego County Supervisors hold public hearings on a new General Plan to manage the growth in unincorporated areas. Reactions to the draft plan are very varied.

Larry and Arby Johnson retired to the family ranch in Campo about 50 miles from downtown San Diego. Sitting in the kitchen of her ranch house, Arby Johnson reminisces about her childhood in Campo.


“My mom and dad built this house in 1930,” she says, “The family has been on the Ranch since the 1870s. We’d like to keep Campo historical and not much growth.”

The Johnson’s ranch would be down zoned under the County’s new plan. In other words, fewer homes would be allowed per acre on their property, if they want to develop it. But Johnson doesn’t mind the new restrictions,

“When people move out here from San Diego or town, they’re wanting the open spaces,” she says, “and we’re hoping we don’t get a Wal-Mart or something like that. I hope that never happens.”

Devon Muto is chief of advanced planning for San Diego County. He says the existing plan was created more than 30 years ago, and allows for more growth than planners now think is feasible. He says the new plan moves future development away from areas like Campo, partly because the backcountry relies on diminishing groundwater supplies.

“The majority of our future growth is going to be located in the western portion of our unincorporated area,” Muto explains.“ In our communities that are within the County Water Authority, which is the area served by imported water.”


On a big wall map in his office, Muto points to the County Water Authority line which runs from the north to the south and is a little to the east of the edge of San Diego’s incorporated cities.

Under the new proposed General Plan Update, 80 percent of new development would be in areas with access to imported water, west of that line, and only 20 percent would be in the eastern back country.

Communities that would see the most growth are Fallbrook, Valley Center, Ramona, Lakeside, Alpine and Spring Valley. Residents in these areas have mixed feelings about the amount of growth their communities would be expected to absorb.

But Muto says there’s another reason to move future growth further west -- a very high wildfire threat.

“We have a limited amount of fire service in those areas because of the number of fire stations and staffing that we have available in those areas.” he says. “That suggests we should be limiting the amount of growth that’s in those areas.”

Out in Campo, the Johnsons are very aware of the wildfire risk. Larry Johnson says the pond in front of their ranch house was used when a fire broke out along the border recently.

“We had a lot of helicopters taking water out and transporting water back to the fire.” He says. When I ask him if fire is something he thinks about a lot, he says he and his wife think about it all the time, “Especially October when the winds come up and the grasses have all gotten dry,” he says.

San Diego County is already struggling to marshal enough firefighting resources to cover the backcountry. It would take a lot of public money to put more fire stations out there.

But not everyone is happy at the idea of limiting growth in the eastern part of the county. Randy Lenac retired to Big Springs Ranch in Campo over a decade ago.

“People are angry when they hear what’s contained in this plan.” Lenac says.

Lenac says his 200-acre property will be down zoned. Right now his minimum lot size is 4, 8 or 20 acres. He says that will change, depending on which option for growth the supervisors decide on.

“There’s four maps,” Lenac says,” and we don’t know which one the supervisors will approve. If the most environmentally sensitive map is adopted, much of this land out here is going to be 80 acre minimum lot sizes and in the best case, 40 acre minimum lot sizes. So it's pretty dramatic.”

Lenac says this could reduce his property value by 50 percent or more. Though he says he has no plans to build, Lenac says the new County plan threatens to decimate the equity in his property. He and many farmers in the county plan to fight it.

“These communities struggle to survive,” he says. “There’s not a lot of economic drivers, our only value is our land.”

Michael Beck, Chair of the County’s Planning Commission, says the Supervisors have the legal authority to rezone areas. A study commissioned by the County Planning Department suggests property values will not be radically reduced by changing the zoning. The supervisors may consider ways to compensate landowners for any loss of equity, but it’s not clear where that money would come from.

Beck says the plan is consistent with new state law that requires local government to find ways to cut down on greenhouse gases. Clustering development closer to jobs, schools and existing services means less driving. It will also mean less taxpayer investment in new roads and services in remote rural areas.

Beck says the new plan is the product of 12 years of hard work, involving more than 20 local panning groups and numerous other stakeholders.

“It’s not perfect in my view either,” Beck says, “but it helps to drive us towards a vision that would in the long term allow us to protect those aspects of the county that are irreplaceable. The landscape in the backcountry, the open spaces, the deserts, the coniferous forests, the things that make us unique, and it does it in a fair way that is based in good sound planning principles.”

Water, fire protection, clean air and open space are part of everyone’s quality of life. The supervisors’ challenge will be to balance the competing demands and make a decision to benefit the region as a whole.