San Diegans to Ask for Growth-Control Powers

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

If local demonstrations or a lawsuit using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) don’t stop a new housing project, just vote it down. That’s the new NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) sentiment prevailing among residents of San Diego County. To back up their concerns about new housing, they’ve qualified an initiative for the 2020 ballot which would require a vote of the people before certain developments in the county’s unincorporated areas could be approved.

It’s the latest in a fight between development interests and environmentalists in that southernmost California county over large housing projects in the region’s “backcountry”. The battle has been raging for years but has re-surfaced lately because of the several new projects being proposed there and the recent approval by the County Board of Supervisors (“the Board”) of the 2,100-unit Newland Sierra project north of Escondido.

The Board, a majority of whom oppose the initiative, were forced by state law to put the measure on the ballot. Sponsors of the initiative, led by the Endangered Habitats League, just missed the deadline for submitting to the County Registrar of Voters a list of valid signatures. Unless a counter measure is filed, several housing projects already in the queue for approval will face a county-wide vote.

The initiative represents a new barrier to development in a growth area of the state already suffering from a vexing housing crisis, brought on by a low level of production. Employers are worried that rents and home prices, particularly in areas experiencing high job creation, are causing serious worker dislocation. Still, lawmakers and pundits don’t seem to care about the prospects of California residents, fed up with high housing costs, shipping off to other states.

Growth control is not new to California. Among the most serious initiatives occurred in the year 2000 when several growth-restricting measures were passed in East Bay communities. Measure D, passed in Alameda County – which shares waterfront with the job-rich city of San Francisco – like the San Diego plan also subjected housing projects to a public vote. The effects of Measure D, sponsored by the Sierra Club, are still being felt in Alameda County and beyond as sluggish Bay Area housing development has sent rents and home prices soaring.

In fact, the consequence of this decades-old production shortage, which is failing to match Bay Area job creation, is sending Silicon Valley workers to the faraway Central Valley in search of an affordable place to live and clogging area highways along the way. Interstate 580 is at almost all hours a commuter’s nightmare.

Warned Mary King, an African-American member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors at the time Measure D and other Bay Area growth-control measures were being considered, “Efforts to place all housing developments before a vote of the public is a dangerous and irresponsible policy. These initiatives will cripple our ability to provide affordable housing for our growing work force.”

King went on to say “Advocates of these initiatives are asking the voters to bury their heads in the sand. Just because environmentalists don’t want people to move here doesn’t mean that we will stop growing. What we need (instead of these measures) is a balanced and responsible plan to deal with growth.”

If approved in 2020, the San Diego County initiative, dubbed Save Our San Diego Countryside, would essentially strip the Board of its current land-use authority. Indeed, under provisions of the proposed law when a proposed housing project is okayed through the normal process, county voters would then have to give it the thumbs up before it could move forward.

Completely missing the forest for the trees, both proponents and opponents of the initiative selfishly fussed over the measure’s administrative costs. For example, an impact report requested by supervisors said that the initiative could run up the cost of elections, provoke costly special elections and delay the current general plan amendment process due to the voter-approval requirement. The report went on to warn that those costs and delays could discourage developers from participating in the process. As if the uncertainty of a local resident vote wouldn’t likely scare most developers away!

The report did warn supervisors of developers being diverted to other, more expensive land which would lead to even higher home prices. However, little was said how growth control – particularly in high job producing areas – simply doesn’t work. Nary a word was spoken either about the benefits of housing projects: how new development creates high-paying jobs, adds new facilities – including schools – to the community and generates dollars for improving existing infrastructure. Instead, the report seemed to concern itself with what impact the initiative would have not on the region’s housing have-nots but on the Board.

For what it’s worth, the report begged this question, asked by Supervisor Bill Horn: “If this (initiative) passes, what do we need a Board of Supervisors for?” Good question.

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