New homes under construction in North San Diego County. File photo by Mike Blake via Reuters

Ballot-box planning has failed miserably to provide homes for working families in Escondido and Ventura County, and now NIMBYs have set San Diego County in their sights for a similar no-growth initiative.

The so-called Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside (SOS) initiative on the March 2020 ballot is the ultimate NIMBY power play. SOS would shut down housing in San Diego County. It would require a countywide vote of 1.6 million voters to add 6 or more houses to the county’s General Plan.

Why is this such a serious threat? One of the last remaining places to build affordable homes is in the county, and if this harmful measure passes there, we will absolutely see copycat measures in neighboring cities. SOS is bad for our economy, our environment and our quality of life, and young and working families would suffer the most if voters approve this measure.

A handful of extremely wealthy Wall Street investors paid to put the SOS Initiative on the ballot to protect their real estate investments at the expense of the rest of us. At its core, SOS is about ensuring no one moves in next to a luxury resort and spa, the Golden Door, that attracts Hollywood elites like Oprah Winfrey for $10,000 a week.

These wealthy Wall Street investors are fine with the existing county zoning for luxury homes on multi-acre lots. They don’t want any of that zoning changed to allow for affordable homes. They also want the ability to add to their real estate investments, which is why the measure places no limits on resorts, hotels, casinos, manufacturing plants, warehouses and all other commercial properties.

We know how this movie ends, which is why a broad coalition of community leaders has come together to oppose SOS, including firefighters, business leaders and affordable home builders.

One of us represents the building industry and the other is an affordable housing developer, so we closely track housing production. We’ve observed that the City of Escondido provides a cautionary tale. Two decades ago, Escondido voters approved a similar NIMBY ballot measure. It implemented a mandatory public vote on projects that increase residential density, among other things.

A 2018 study by Point Loma Nazarene University’s Fermanian Business & Economic Institute regarding a proposal for ballot-box planning in Oceanside stated: “Escondido’s experience with Proposition S, passed in 1998, which requires a public vote for any change in land use, has severely impeded the construction of new housing… After the City of Escondido initiative passed in 1998, 16 developers tried to change their zoning. Eight dropped out before the ballot, and voters rejected all of the other eight.”

Today, Escondido is among the lowest-performing cities in the county, having met only one-third of its housing production target set by the state.

Unfortunately, that’s not always what voters are hearing about the Escondido experience. Some have suggested SOS would be OK because ballot-box planning worked in Escondido, but that’s simply not true.

Ventura County’s experience with ballot-box planning is similar. Measures just like SOS — approved throughout Ventura County years ago — crushed its economy, job growth and housing affordability, economists say, and that county has never recovered.

Before the NIMBYs took over, Ventura employment out-performed the rest of California. Jobs there grew 50 percent better than the state, but since their ballot-box-planning initiatives, job growth has been 50 percent worse because housing costs have soared, according to the 2018 study by the Fermanian Institute. Some companies downsized, and others left.

We do not want to end up like Ventura County or Escondido.

No on SOS is not advocating for any specific project. The No on SOS coalition opposes the additional layer of bureaucracy that is going to make our housing crisis worse. SOS would put more apartments and homes out of reach for young families. The SOS Initiative, for example, would block projects up and down the I-15 growth and transit corridor and near Bonita. Affordable homes in those areas would be close to job centers and transit/transportation.

Sprawl, on the other hand, is understood by most people to mean suburban development out in the back country, such as in Julian and Bonsall, creating bedroom communities and long commutes to jobs. Yet no one is planning to build in the back country because it’s not near jobs or freeways or public transit. And as City Council candidate Will Moore has noted, “Fallbrook, Alpine and Borrego Springs are not better places to increase density than land near the city borders.” But the SOS measure actually exempts villages from the ballot-box planning requirement.

Speaking of sprawl, we do have an awful sprawl problem that’s relevant here: NIMBYs have helped turn Riverside County into a bedroom community for San Diego, with 60,000 commuters driving into San Diego daily.

The backers of SOS will tell you the initiative would protect our back country, or rural and semi-rural lands, but it will do no such thing. In fact, 95 percent of that land is public or protected land that is already off-limits to home building and commercial development.

SOS proponents also claim the county’s General Plan already allows construction of 60,000 new homes, but what they won’t tell you is the majority of those would be luxury homes on lots ranging in size from a half acre to 80 acres. The fact is, if the SOS measure passes, homes that are affordably priced for working families will not be built.

Let’s learn from the lessons of Escondido and Ventura County and say no to wealthy NIMBYs and their ballot-box planning schemes. It’s bad for San Diego County, and for all of us.

Borre Winckel is president and chief executive officer of the Building Industry Association of San Diego. James Schmid is an affordable housing developer and chief executive officer of Chelsea Investment Corporation.

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