The state mandated update of San Diego County's general plan, due for a comprehensive overhaul every 20 years, is several years late-the last update was in 1979. The delay largely stems from squabbles within the General Plan 2020 Interest Group, an advisory panel charged with figuring out the details of the plan, which serves as a blueprint for countywide land preservation and development.
But the setbacks have at least one group claiming that the county Board of Supervisors is incompetent. And from of the discord, an alternative land-use plan has emerged.
Environmentalists, crestfallen from the GP 2020 Interest Group's direction, expect the so-called Rural Lands Initiative to qualify for the March ballot by the end of next week. The initiative, drafted by the preservationist group, Save Our Forests And Ranchlands (SOFAR), would establish a habitat-conservation overlay-effective until Dec. 31, 2023-on 700,000 backcountry acres in the "most sensitive and distant" lands in the county, including those in the Cleveland National Forest, Borrego Springs and Jacumba, according to one environmentalist.
Supporters say the initiative was necessary because the Interest Group's plan encourages sprawl, misdirects infrastructure dollars to rural development and doesn't go far enough to protect watersheds or open space in the backcountry. Opponents of the Rural Lands Initiative argue that it doesn't account for future growth or adequately safeguard private property rights.
"We have five symptoms that include not just environment, but housing, transit, beach pollution and infrastructure decay," SOFAR chairman Duncan McFetridge says.
San Diego, he points out, already has 800 square miles of urban development and 200 square miles of asphalt and concrete that supports the current transit system. "The more you extend concrete and asphalt," he says, "the more it becomes a drain, siphoning off the water supply."
And while the details of a general plan update are at the crux of debate, there is much contention over a component in the initiative that would take the power to amend the general plan away from the Board of Supervisors and give it to the voting public. Supervisor Bill Horn told CityBeat that, in the case of land-use, representative government cannot be replaced by direct democracy, because land-use is too complicated an issue for the public to fully comprehend.
McFetridge counters that perhaps land-use is too complicated for the Board of Supervisors. In 1995, a judge agreed with SOFAR in a lawsuit charging that the general plan was missing a mandatory agricultural element and that board had illegally zoned 191,000 acres of cultivated and rangeland preserves in 8-acre minimums. The judge told SOFAR to manage the land until the supervisors got their act together; it took seven years. SOFAR, to this day, has decision-making power on 50,000 acres within Cleveland National Forest.
"It's embarrassing to the Board of Supervisors," McFetridge said. "It's really why we began the initiative-history shows that we should have no confidence in them at all."
The Rural Lands Initiative's opponents, which include the Building Industry Association, Farm Bureau and San Diego Association of Realtors, among others, for the most part share an opinion on the initiative: property rights good, ballot-box direct-democracy bad. The real estate industry and developers have peppered the debate with calls for more housing, but the opposition has one unifying mantra, expressed concisely by Supervisor Horn: "I am most concerned about protecting property rights, period."
The Rural Lands Initiative's Clean Water and Forest (CWF) overlay would limit development on 700,000 acres in San Diego County, says Interest Group member and Sierra Club spokesman Eric Bowlby. The county's preferred general plan covers the entire unincorporated area, everything outside the county water authority boundary, which comes to more than 2.3 million acres. If 90 percent of the CWF land is in the unincorporated region, as Bowlby says, that means the supervisors still have control over nearly 1.7 million acres of the backcountry.
As of May 2003, when the initiative's language was completed, lands pinpointed by the CWF overlay were not slated for residential development. The initiative would keep it that way, while also imposing future minimum parcel sizes-40 to 80 acres in multiple-use or agricultural zones; 160 acres for privately-held, "environmentally-constrained" areas outside the water authority boundary.
These lot sizes, Bowlby says, are necessary to protect habitat and to reduce competition for groundwater in the rural areas. "Wells in those areas have been drying up in record numbers over the last few years," he said.
By comparison, according to the Interest Group's preferred model, agricultural lands outside the county water authority boundary may get minimum lot sizes as small as 20 acres; agricultural lands within the boundary may go down to 10 acres; and multiple-use parcel sizes may drop to 4 acres.
Jim Whalen, an Interest Group member and developer consultant, counters that the Rural Lands Initiative will prevent farmers from dividing their land for inheritance purposes. Moreover, he says, the provision will hurt agriculture by forcing California farmers, who grow low-yield crops, such as avocados, onto bigger parcels where they won't be able to meet their costs.
But Bowlby says CWF will not affect existing parcels and will actually go further than the Interest Group's plan in protecting agriculture's future. "If you give residential zoning [to] agriculture land, it will go to residential," he said. "If you protect it in agricultural zoning, then agriculture will survive. Farmers go [to residential zoning] because it's time to subdivide and cash in."
Supervisor Horn says the county needs to open the unincorporated region to growth in order to pay for an existing infrastructure shortfall.
But by expanding growth to fill shortages, McFetridge says, the county will forever be playing catch up and its coffers will dry up quicker.
Nobody is arguing growth isn't inevitable-the San Diego's Affordable Housing Taskforce projects a need for 113,696 homes in the next 10 years-but SOFAR wants to see more density in existing urban areas, rather than expansion into the backcountry.
Development in the far-reaching areas of the county, McFetridge says, will take taxpayer dollars for schools and transportation away from the cities, and the rural areas will be put on the city grid for water and sewage.
The San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council recently endorsed the Rural Lands Initiative, and the proposal received another boost when the San Diego Housing Coalition jumped on. Both groups advise that affordable housing and sound city infrastructure are only possible through urban redevelopment.
Eric Larson, an Interest Group member and Farm Bureau spokesman, says the Rural Lands Initiative has much to say about what areas should be protected, but it says nothing about where growth should occur, other than that it doesn't matter where growth occurs, as long as it is not within the overlay region.
"It leaves us wondering where growth will occur," he says. "We need to say where it will be to plan for it."
In any case, when the initiative qualifies for the ballot next week, the gloves are going to come off. "I am going to be out there to defeat it," Supervisor Horn says.
Bowlby is expecting the opposition to try to scare people away from the issue by assuring them its too complicated. But he has faith that if people are given the details, they will accept the challenge of sorting them out. "The good thing about this initiative," Bowlby says, "is that amendments to increase development will require the vote of the people. It's the assurance the people need to know the land is protected."