A rendering of the planned Newland Sierra Town Center in North County.

By Kirk Effinger

Merriam-Webster defines “backcountry” as “a remote undeveloped rural area.” Webster’s defines “remote” as “out-of-the-way, secluded ; e.g., a remote cabin in the hills.”

San Diego County is blessed with thousands upon thousands of acres of unspoiled and preserved lands that meet this definition. In fact, ninety-five percent of this county’s open lands are in a permanently preserved state.

So, why then do opponents of developments like Newland Sierra north of Escondido insist on describing its locale as backcountry? Lying immediately adjacent to an interstate highway and within the spheres of influence of two North County cities with a combined population of over 300,000 residents, the proposed development hardly qualifies as “remote.”

It’s simple, really. Most people, especially would-be voters on the nascent county-wide initiative designed to halt this development and many others, will rely on that characterization and the common definitions given here as their primary tool in decision-making, without actually looking at where the developments actually are.

If you are a voter in say, Bonita, do you really know (or care) where a development in North County is? Probably not. So, you, being a voter concerned about preserving our open space, will go along with the backcountry label and cast your ballot to stop the project. Forget that the land in question is privately-owned and you are trespassing if you use that “open space.”

My wife and I took a leisurely Sunday drive recently to explore a bit of San Diego’s true backcountry. We drove through Santa Ysabel and out to Borrego Springs some 65 miles and saw what “remote” really means. Vast tracts of open space, much of it environmentally protected and preserved, far from the urban and suburban areas that the vast majority of our county’s residents are familiar with.

To listen to critics, development of a couple-thousand acres of privately-owned lands within a mile or two of city limits would lead to the paving-over of the entire county and make it just another Los Angeles. Taking the time to drive the true backcountry of East County and North County would allay those concerns.

One of the ironies in the “we don’t want to become another Los Angeles” trope is that we can’t. Our geography, topography, and the thousands of acres of dedicated wildland parks prevent it.

Fear-mongering has been a useful political tool forever. NIMBYs have used it to great effect. Well, it’s time to fear this: If we do nothing and allow every voice that complains about growth to continue to drive the agenda on development and stop growth, businesses will leave, and people will leave, and with them go the economy we all depend on.

The “save the backcountry” crowd wants to force all new development into our cities. City dwellers increasingly are putting up roadblocks to infill and want to force it anywhere else. Both will say, “We’re not against development, we just don’t want it here.” I say if not here, where?

San Diego native Kirk Effinger is an Escondido Realtor and housing and community activist. He has lived in North County for over 30 years and is a former North County Times and San Diego Union-Tribune columnist.

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