Measure A Would Dramatically Change How Rural Land Is Developed In San Diego County
San Diego County voters will decide in March whether they should get a say in deciding the fate of backcountry housing projects.
Measure A would require a countywide vote for housing projects in rural areas that currently only require the approval of supervisors for an amendment to build.
J.P. Theberge is in charge of the group Grow the San Diego Way. He stood next to a busy construction site in Valley Center.
“And right here is a project called Park Circle,” Theberge said. “And it’s on the site of an old dairy.”
It is also a housing project he likes. Because it fits inside the county’s plan for growth in the unincorporated areas.
Developer Touchstone Communities is building 630 homes here, without the need for a special exemption from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
A yes vote on Measure A is a vote to require a public vote for general plan amendments that increase housing density on rural or semi-rural lands. The measure passes if it gets more than 50 percent of the vote in March.
That’s because this land is zoned to build a lot of houses.
This project is inside the county’s plan for development in the area because it is located next to Valley Center Road, a major road that puts the development close to existing services.
The county spent years with stakeholders hashing out a development plan that clusters new housing near villages, services and jobs to provide a blueprint for growth.
But since the general plan was adopted, supervisors are still approving large backcountry developments in isolated rural areas where those amenities are sparse.
“Newland Sierra, Lilac Hills Ranch, Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South, Otay Neighborhood 14,” said Susan Baldwin as she ticked off a list of exemptions for major housing projects in rural areas.
Baldwin is a retired urban planner and president of San Diegans for Managed Growth.
She is dismayed how frequently the county turned its back on a development blueprint that was eight years in the making and sought out input from everyone.
“Business interests, the building industry, community members, environmentalists,” Baldwin said. “If the plan needs to be changed then there needs to be a review of the plan as a whole. Not individual projects being approved in a piecemeal fashion.”
It is a point of view shared by the backers of Measure A.
“The building industry, they do a lot of great stuff, but when it comes to the sprawl projects and the ones that don’t comply with the general plan. They really have their finger on the scale,” Theberge said.
Getting approval for a housing project outside the general plan guidelines is relatively easy according to Theberge, who said developers only need to convince three supervisors to get an amendment to the General Plan.
“And the public doesn’t have input,” Theberge said.
That would change if voters support Measure A, called the Save Our San Diego Countryside initiative.
Developers working on projects six homes or larger would have to put it up for a countywide ballot vote if it is outside the general plan guidelines for urban growth.
Supporters say that makes the process fair, but the opponents of Measure A have a different opinion.
Tanya Castaneda represents the No on the SOS initiative campaign.
“The SOS initiative is fundamentally an anti-growth and anti-housing measure. And it's ballot box planning at its worst,” Castaneda said.
The No on SOS campaign brought together labor leaders, first responders and politicians to speak out against the measure.
“What it’s going to do is add a whole new regulatory layer to try to get any new home building happening in our county,” Castaneda said.
The No on Measure A effort is funded largely by the county’s Building Industry Association, which does not want the current system to change.
Gary London, a real estate economist volunteering with the No on Measure A campaign, thinks the current system works just fine.
Informed supervisors, he argues, make informed decisions on amendments vetted by county staffers.
“There’s always compromises that are made in terms of the number of housing units or the type of housing, or what infrastructure should be provided, or what kind of roads should be provided, what kind of fire safety should be provided," London said. “All that is properly vetted within our representative system. And I think it’s a system worth preserving.”
London is not confident voters will do the same.
The demand for housing is one factor that contributes to the region’s soaring home prices, prices which make housing unaffordable for most San Diego County residents.
“Just by virtue of building more housing, by having more supply, against the backdrop of large demand. You’re going to have an impact of a bit of pricing in the county,” London said.