County to consider approving addition of 10,000 housing units this year

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The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will be considering approval for the development of 10,129 new housing units before the end of the year.

Although the county’s general plan only allows for three amendments a year, the developments – seven projects in total – are being ‘bundled’ together into three projects to meet the amendment cap.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will be considering approval for the development of 10,129 new housing units before the end of the year.

Although the county’s general plan only allows for three amendments a year, the developments – seven projects in total – are being ‘bundled’ together into three projects to meet the amendment cap.

A video made public on the website of a local interest group, Grow the San Diego Way, reveals County Planning and Development Services Director Mark Wardlow proposing the method of ‘bundling’ together multiple projects to get around current zoning laws.

The first bundle, which includes three projects and totals 3,936 individual housing units, is set to come before the County as early as July.

The developments in question would be Harmony Grove Village South, Valiano and Otay 250.

Newland Sierra, the largest project with just over 2,000 units, comes before the County in September, and Otay Village, Warner Ranch and Lilac Hills Ranch are supposed to appear for consideration in October, just before the election.

Jacqueline Arsivaud, a San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidate, said that there has been a push to pass these General Plan Amendments (GPAs) before voters have a chance to express dissent.

“The reason for the rush is that they expect it will be much harder to get these exemptions approved by the voters once the Save Our San Diego Countryside measure is passed,” she said.

Lilac Hills Ranch was actually presented to the voters as a ballot measure in 2016 and was defeated by a 64 percent majority. The same proposal, unchanged in density of units, is now going before the supervisors to be considered in October.

Bundling the seven projects into three amendments fits the letter of the law, but not the spirit, said Grow the San Diego Way in a published comment on their website.

“While it may be legally defensible, it appears to be a loophole that the County is exploiting and not to the benefit of the taxpayer who will be on the hook for the added infrastructure costs and fire risks associated with most of these projects,” the group wrote.

Arsivaud, who has spent the better part of a decade as a board member of the San Dieguito Planning Group, reviewing land use applications from developers and other entities, said these projects are rife with potential problems such as lack of infrastructure like roads and water supply, environmental damage, and fire safety concerns.

Projects like Harmony Grove Village South are planned for areas with extreme fire risk. Located in the Escondido area, it has only a two lane road in and out of the region.

“The main concern that residents have is that in the next wildfire, people will simply become trapped,” said Arsivaud. “We’ve hired traffic consultants to review data provided by applicants and they’ve told us that [in the case of a fire] there will be fatalities.”

Freeway impaction due to the drastic increase in housing is likely to affect all San Diegans on the road, said land-use analyst Clif Williams.

“That’s the major problem we have with a change in the general plan is that SANDAG and Caltrans have made all their plans around the general plan,” said Williams. “Those are massive changes that are going to fundamentally change how the freeways are going to work.”

The general plan, passed in 2011, was intended to guide the growth of San Diego’s communities to allow for the greatest access to roads and transportation and the greatest protection for the county’s outlying wildlife.

Williams said GPAs challenge the strategic thought of the general plan, citing the Newland Sierra project that would nearly double the size of the existing population in that region.

“It’s wrong – we decided we were going to put the people near the jobs and near the transit and minimize the use of their cars,” he said. “That’s hard in San Diego but it’s starting to work. Now, if you take a new city the size of Del Mar and stick it up on a hill on the I-15, how are you going to get those people in and out?”

Part of people’s desire to live in San Diego is the environment, said Williams. Folks like being able to drive to Julian to pick apples in the mountains or drive out to the desert, he said. 

“San Diego took the time to develop a plan that preserved the heritage of the area, reduced traffic on the freeway and we chose to preserve our back country and grow inside the cities,” he said. “These were very specific choices that we made for very specific reasons. And they were good choices.”

Additionally, Williams said that sprawl creates a political constituency imbalance. Transit money currently going to HOV lanes and public transit lines in metro San Diego could be redirected in coming elections to alleviate impacted roadways where these new projects are developing, he said, because of the influx of voters moving into those housing units. The costs of infrastructure should be placed, at least in part, on the developers, Williams said.

“They could pay toward that and they should,” said Williams. “Newland is probably tracking to net about a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. And yet, the county is not making them pay for any infrastructure off the I-15.”

To compound concerns with the GPAs, many of them are missing affordable housing components – like Newland Sierra – which is a requirement for housing developments under the general plan.

The attraction to buying up agricultural land and pushing to rezone it is a financial one. Agriculturally zoned land is not nearly as expensive and land zoned for housing, making it a prime target for outside developers looking to make a high profit, said Williams.

Williams said the real travesty in the proposed bundles is the disregard for the general plan.

“It’s incredibly bad precedent,” he said. “This is the first major overhaul of the general plan in 30 years. It took ten years and thousands of hours by community members, environmental and wildlife agencies, the County of San Diego – people met for years about these things and we decided as a community where to grow and where not to grow.”

Holding the desires of outside investors above voices within the community is disrespectful to those who put in the effort to ensure a quality general plan in the first place, Williams said.
“We made all of these decisions in the ten years leading up to 2011 and all these communities felt like they had a clear blue print about where growth was going to go and the county is throwing it all in the trash and lighting it with a match as if none of that ever happened,” he said. “It is absolutely bad planning and it’s an affront to all the community members included in the process. Why should anyone ever contribute in a project like this again? That’s the message that the county is sending to all of their community groups by entertaining these massive general plan amendments.”

Arsivaud said housing developers are a major contributor to political campaigns, including county supervisor seats.

“From a good governance standpoint, it’s a system that’s problematic,” said Arsivaud. “It’s a fundamental conflict of interest.”

Campaign donation information is available to the public on the San Diego Registrar of Voters, Campaign Financial Disclosure website.

The Union Tribune reported that Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she had not heard of the bundling until Arsivaud came before the board during their meeting last week, quoting her, “I want to make sure the integrity of the process is in place. I know that we have some controversial land-use projects that are in the process and will be coming before this board. I certainly want to make sure the process is respected and that there is plenty of time for planning group input and a public process.”

Arsivaud said Jacob has historically shown wise leadership in dealing with GPAs in regards to their effect on the community.

“Dianne has been really one of the few supervisors over time that really understands the risks that these general plan amendments represent and she has been a real champion of the risks associated with wildfire,” said Asrivaud.

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