Building Industry Association (BIA) CEO Borre Winckel and Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (C-3, a non-profit that advocates sustainable urban planning in San Diego) President Kathleen Ferrier recently debated the Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside (SOS) ballot initiative. The initiative was described by East County Magazine as follows:
If passed, the measure would require voter approval of amendments to the San Diego County General Plan that significantly increase density on parcels in the unincorporated county now designated for farming, open space, and wildlife uses.
The email exchange contained a passionate and informative conversation with directly conflicting ideas about how the measure might impact development, housing, and the environment in San Diego County.
Apparently responding to an endorsement of the measure by C-3, BIA CEO Winckel starts off the debate with the following email directed to C-3 Board member Cary Lowe:
On Thu, May 10, 2018 at 5:13 PM, Borre Winckel [email address removed] wrote:
Subject: Safeguard Our SD Countryside Will Prove a Big Mistake
I am disappointed and concerned that C3 was so quick to take an endorsement action favoring the County’s proposed “Safeguard our San Diego Countryside” ballot box initiative. It has quite a misleading title. Close to 95% of the entire unincorporated area is permanently off limits to development. What will actually be safeguarded, is the life style of suburban boomers who want to keep “those other people” out of the neighborhood. Too few people have the courage to admit it. Is endorsing a classic slow-growth initiative during a time of extraordinary high-housing need, of deep affordable housing cost misery and record homelessness a progressive move? As a native-Dutch liberal this has me confused.
I talked to a rep from the Nature Conservancy offline and this person (who would not say this publicly) agreed that this proposal promotes development of ranchettes throughout the semirural and rural areas of the County. In particular, that this screws up the ability to cluster housing to gain more conservation easements. The proposal’s actual impact goes fully against privately owned open space and natural habitat preservation activity. In fact, the planned prohibition to use density transfers from high to low sites, eliminates the creation of high(er) densities where current smart planning would dictate their proper and superior location. This density transfer prohibition is one of a series of fatal planning flaws in this proposal.
The effect of its passage will rapidly drive up the land values for the semi-rural and rural areas, and promotes second & third homes for the well-to-do to create horse ranches all over. This land use is the fastest growing of all uses as many aspire to the weekend western lifestyle and activity. Because tract housing growth in the County is already curtailed to an inconsequential acreage amount (well under 1% of the entire land base area), it will make financial and economic sense to improve the back country dirt roads, fence in the properties, add landscaping, irrigation ponds and lines fed by well water, plus the construction of multiple barns, guest houses etc. It will bring livestock, goats, dogs, non-native plant species and fire zone clearing in areas that were previously untouched. The stormwater runoff in the County creek beds may give SDRWQCB staff a field day.
Since the proper density transfer mechanism won’t exist, no one in their right mind will transfer from low to high receiver sites (the reverse of the aforementioned, which the proposal permits). This will further promote and accelerate dotting the true back country as a “high density” small ranch territory, which will finally make it accessible for private general aviation. This will be a direct and unintended consequence of this proposal. It all flies in the face of all the environmental lessons I ever learned.
I suspect that many see this initiative as a building block to creating a de facto urban limit line, a path to at long last “encouraging” TOD developments throughout the area. This would supposedly happen by linking the “Villages” where the proponents claim growth can be accommodated, thanks to the existing County General Plan. Hence, the proposed extraordinary restriction placed on General Plan Amendments. GPA’s would no longer be needed. This will prove a costly mistake.
Development experts told me that many of these Village settings have so many topographical site constraints that these too shall remain largely low-density suburban. Borrego is one such a Village. Really, Borrego, is that where our workforce will be housed? In other words, from here on it would be exclusively large lot development for big and thus expensive homes.
The proponent’s claim that the County General Plan has 52,000 – 62,000 zoning entitlement, enough to last us for a while, is based on thin air. No data exists to support this number. It was invented by someone at the end of the 12-year General Plan Update process when everyone was fed up and wanted it over with. If this initiative passes, it would freeze all the inconsistencies, all the flaws of the General Plan for 20 years. That 20-year freeze alone is reason enough to reject this proposal.
I am concerned that this initiative (and others just like it) accomplishes nothing more than providing an outlet for the NIMBY’s of our region. By requiring a countywide vote, this initiative will amount to a referendum on all housing projects, no matter where it is located. People will not think of this as being limited to the “unincorporated” area. They will think of the affordable housing project proposed in their neighborhood. They will vote no. They will vote against a middle-income project proposed nearby. All this does, is inform every city hall how their voters voted on housing growth. If it passes, it will affect every single housing project from hereon no matter who is supposed to live there. The work force and the clients of our affordable housing builders will be the most impacted. Have they endured enough of this already? I believe that this proposal has huge social justice implications.
This initiative comes without any study. It doesn’t stop population or housing growth, it just pushes people further out and by so doing worsens and degrades our traffic conditions. We end up with even more housing challenges, because the main effect of this proposal is to further escalate housing costs by denying housing opportunities at the biggest scale. We know what will happen next, even more copycat initiatives from fed up citizens not living in the County, who will resent meeting the County’s unmet housing need.
I respectfully ask C3 to reconsider its endorsement.
President & C.E.O.
In a widely distributed email, C-3 President Kathleen Ferrier responds three days later:
From: Kathleen Ferrier
Sent: Sunday, May 13, 2018 2:08 PM
To: Borre Winckel
Subject: Re: Safeguard Our SD Countryside Will Prove a Big Mistake
Thank you for copying me on your message to Cary Lowe regarding the proposed Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside voter initiative (SOS). I appreciate hearing your opinion on behalf of the Building Industry Association and think it’s important to share. I want to respond on behalf of the C-3 Board, to clarify why we support this measure.
In general, we are supporting SOS because we believe in the integrity of the County General Plan, we want to ensure that the community is involved in decision making, that the opportunity for public input is not dismissed by government leaders, and in particular, we want housing development to be prioritized in areas that already have infrastructure and public services. Further, we’d like to see elected officials, planners, policymakers, in the spirit of sound planning and climate change action, take steps to halt the unsustainable pattern of building master-planned, auto-centric, low density suburbs in geographically fragmented areas.
The BIA itself has often spoken of the importance of “smart growth”. In the definitive guide to the future of metropolitan areas, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Neighborhood Development Guide, top priority is given to “Smart Growth and Linkage.” It emphasizes that new growth should be connected to existing development, that “preferences should be given to locations close to existing towns and city centers, sites with good transit access, infill sites, previously developed sites and sites adjacent to existing development.” It goes on to advocate that new development must be connected to transit to overcome “automobile dependence and loss of habitat to sprawl.” The LEED Guide points out that 14.6 million households across the U.S. are expected to prefer housing within a half-mile of rail transit stops by 2025, more than double the number of households living in such locations today.
You ask: Is endorsing a classic slow-growth initiative during a time of extraordinary high-housing need, of deep affordable housing cost misery and record homelessness a progressive move?
Yes, we are in an extraordinary housing need, but these homes need to first be built in areas already planned for housing. Our local land use plans and housing elements call for this. Based on those adopted local plans for our entire region, a recent SANDAG tabulation found nearly 68,000 available, already-approved housing units in unincorporated areas of the county alone. Those should be developed before projects, in lower-priority locations, are approved.
As a developer, I would guess that can you list many reasons why building infill in these prioritized areas is challenging, with little incentives/assistance from local government. I personally worked for an infill developer for five years and know how challenging it can be. But the bottom line is that developing in these areas — where our plans already call for development and where there are services (utilities, transportation) to support, is the most sustainable, economically effective way to build.
There shouldn’t be too much surprise that C-3 came out in support of SOS as our organization has a long history of supporting the County General Plan and not new development proposed in locations zoned for semi-rural and rural land use. For example, C-3 wrote a letter in opposition to the proposed Lilac Hills development when it was on the ballot last year, for the very reasons I outline above.
As for your argument that passage of SOS will drive up land values and promote ranchette homes for the well to do, any such impacts, if they occur at all, would be an outcome of the currently approved General Plan. SOS will not be a cause of those or any other impacts which you predict.
The General Plan clearly identifies developable lands in the unincorporated areas of the County, and C-3 would very much like to honor the integrity of this Plan. If there is a need for change in zoning or land designation, it should happen through a comprehensive plan update, and not through a piecemeal approach which denies opportunities for meaningful public input, like the series of major General Plan amendments currently being proposed.
You suggest that unnamed “development consultants” claim that the County General Plan’ “villages” are constrained by topography. Yet, the Plan identifies numerous land parcels in readily developable villages like Ramona, Alpine, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Bonsall that are zoned as “Village Core/Mixed Use” and can house many new housing units in locations that fit both the General Plan requirements for new development and the criteria in the LEED Neighborhood Development Guide. Furthermore, San Diego County’s geography of canyons and hilly terrain should not, by itself, preclude residential development — there are numerous innovative, commonly used design solutions for mitigating these local topographic conditions.
We share some of your concerns that this initiative could open up the door to NIMBYs slowing developments even in prioritized areas or opposing comprehensive Plan updates, but we see this risk as still being a better alternative to ramrodding so many amendments in so short a period of time.
The initiative is not perfect, and C-3 generally does not support ballot box planning on principle. But the alarming volume and quick pace of currently proposed amendments to the General Plan have led to this response. In the long run, C-3 hopes that the initiative will lead to a fruitful discussion of the best way to develop in the backcountry. Again, if the General Plan should be amended, this would be a good discussion to have. Or if specific plans can be utilized to accomplish similar goals, that would also be a good discussion.
Sincerely, C-3 would be happy to talk to the BIA and other stakeholders about finding the right solutions to address San Diego County’s housing needs.
C-3 President of the Board, 2018