In the modern political world, "long-term planning" is an oxymoron. Nobody plans for the long term. A plan to have coffee with dessert is the closest thing to forward thinking from the typical politician, who, if we're talking reality here, is more worried about his next election than the region's future.
The region's future is a wonderful concept for the next schmuck. Touting great swing sets for the Class of 2015 is a sure way to lose votes from constituents wondering why their kids are smoking crack in 2005.
Given this engrained mindset, the near completion of the San Dieguito River Valley Park is beyond extraordinary, moving into the realm of wacko fantasy. The idea of spending 20 years creating a continuous, 55-mile-long green belt stretching from Del Mar to Julian is the stuff of Ray Bradbury and bored San Diego State University professors who spend endless hours of sabbatical time contemplating the environmental and sociological nuances of ideas that will never be tainted by reality.
When finished, the park will allow for miles and miles of trails and thousands of acres of untouched habitat. It will also ensure that future generations will get a glimpse of what the San Diego landscape was like before it was turned into a swell Home Depot parking lot.
Typically, when politicians do take a moment to ponder the world of tomorrow, the society they will leave for their grandchildren, they invariably approach the issues like cheap pimps wondering which corner to work. The "long-term planning" that moves forward is the plan that promises "long-term" revenue for the community, especially those members of the community eager to throw weenie roasts for downtrodden members of the city council.
Planning that doesn't involve quickie development is, as they say in the biz, a non-starter. The idea of a park or open-space preservation only works if the plan calls for the park to be surrounded by condos
A typical example of San Diego's approach to long-term planning is North City West, the development now known as Carmel Valley, a sprawling mass of lifeless, green-less streets and stucco, feeding people into a freeway that often resembles a parking lot at an SUV dealership. Even the name is a rip-off, stolen from the valley on the coast to the west, the actual Carmel Valley.
But the leaders of Des Moines of the West spend rarely a nanosecond contemplating the lessons of North City West, the opportunities lost forever. They're too busy trying to portray themselves as the best pothole fixers in their district.
The wacko environmentalists who first devised the idea of a River Valley park started off with one really smart idea: they took the planning out of the hands of government. Instead they formed a nonprofit agency, which was able to operate nimbly to raise money and buy properties, free of the bureaucracies that rule the county.
The River Valley park is the type of project politicians love to discuss and debate, especially if it means they won't have to take any real action. They form committees and civic groups to serve bagels and "raise awareness," knowing full well that when it comes time for action, they'll be sipping margaritas in Cancun.
The River Valley plan almost certainly won support from many area leaders simply because they believed it would never happen. But the dedicated band of park supporters had several factors working in their favor, an aligning of the moons unprecedented in the history of the county.
For one, many of the landowners in the valley were eager to sell. The alternative was to wait for the county to rezone the land for a strip mall, which might take decades. In addition, a good chunk of the land is in a flood plain and is undevelopable. That never stopped housing projects in the county in the past, but it helped move the process along. Instead of acquiring a patch of wetland here and there for a collection of picnic tables and a Port-a-Potty, the River Valley group was able to move on properties with a larger goal in mind, to link the plots of otherwise worthless land.
Developers also saw the River Valley as a cynical way to move projects forward in other parts of the county. In exchange for allowing their developments to go forward, they would donate a few acres to the open-space plan, preferably in the form of a golf course.
The River Valley became a popular tradeoff, a way for politicians and land-rapers to make a cheap gesture of support for the environment. For example, Southern California Edison is picking up the tab for lagoon restoration as a way of saying, "Oops, sorry about destroying the eco-system off the coast of the San Onofre power plant."
Whatever the motivation, there is no downplaying the feat of creating the park. Looking at the map, it is a winding ribbon of green tossed across a sea of gray. When it was first conceived, there was nothing but open space from the coast to Interstate 15. Now the park looks like a thin green barrier, separating the encroaching amoeba of development seeping in from all sides.
When it's actually finished, and San Diegans will be able to hike or ride a horse from the beach to the Cuyamacas, the park will rightfully go down as one of the greatest civic achievements of the last 100 years. BWrite to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.