Newland Sierra
Rural land outside Escondido which is the site of the 2,200-home Newland Sierra development, approved by county supervisors under a general plan amendment. Measure A would forbid such changes. Photo courtesy of Newland Communities

The well-funded misinformation campaign against citizen’s initiative Save our San Diego Countryside — now officially Measure A — is being driven and bankrolled by the Building Industry Association and a handful of sprawl developers who repeatedly seek special exemptions to build in the fire-prone areas that our planning regulations avoid. This should tell you all you need to know about their motivations.

They oppose Measure A because it makes it harder to use their vast political influence to get three developer-friendly county supervisors to approve these exemptions. They are already spending vast sums of money to confuse and hoodwink voters and contracting with high-priced public affairs and digital marketing firms to inundate social media with misinformation.

On the other hand, Measure A is being run by unpaid volunteers — taxpayers, local community leaders, activists, urban planners, small business owners from all over the County — who were tired of the building industry manipulating the political process in San Diego County. Hundreds of volunteers helped gather 107,000 signatures to place it on the ballot. There’s no developer funding and no public affairs teams, and they’ve raised a fraction of what the developers have raised. Their efforts are truly grassroots, intended to protect taxpayers, and operate on a shoestring budget.

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The many endorsers include former county supervisors, retired law enforcement, city council members, virtually every environmental group, community groups, farmers and those who are tired of our decision-makers bending over backwards to give special breaks to sprawl developers.

It seems that the BIA needs some schooling on the general plan. After 13 years, 700 public meetings, input from 29 communities, environmentalists and the building industry to the tune of $18 million, the plan was approved. It created an efficient land use road map that would limit greenhouse gases, reduce congestion, and ultimately save taxpayers over $2 billion by shifting housing from rural areas to village areas within the county and reduce the need for constructing 780 miles of road. Importantly, it also limited housing in high fire-risk areas.

Not everyone got what they wanted. The developers did not like the limits of building in more profitable, but very fire-prone areas of the county. Some environmental groups felt it didn’t go far enough. So, it was a compromise.

Soon after the approval of the award-winning plan, sprawl developers decided they would dismantle the plan by proposing a constant stream of projects seeking special exemptions to these rules — general plan amendments, or GPAs. Now, one might argue that exceptions may occasionally be necessary. However, after seeing 17 GPAs wend their way through the planning process over the past eight years, with more than 13,000 high-end homes in very high fire risk areas previously off-limits, the exception has now become the rule and the developer-friendly supervisors have been glad to oblige.

This barrage of specially-exempt projects threatens the careful planning process paid by taxpayers for the convenience and profit-motive of developers, many of whom are funded by foreign or out-of-state investors. It is this offensive stream of attempts to undermine the general plan piecemeal that spurred taxpayers, local activists and communities to draft the the SOS initiative.

Measure A protects the existing general plan from being disassembled piecemeal by sprawl developers by adding a voter requirement any time a GPA special exception is asked for in the high fire-risk rural or semi-rural zoned areas of the unincorporated county. Measure A does not apply to any city and it wisely doesn’t touch village areas in the unincorporated parts of the county where higher density is already prioritized. Nor does it stop the conversion of commercially or industrially zoned areas into residential areas. It exclusively focuses on up-zoning of rural land.

The general plan actually allocated 66,000 units, more than enough to meet state housing requirements, and contrary to misinformation propagated by the sprawl developers behind No on Measure A, 62% of those units are in villages where affordable entry-level single-family housing and multifamily units are already allowed. This was intended to encourage more affordable units.

Similar to Escondido’s Prop S passed 20 years ago, Measure A will make it more expeditious to build housing. Contrary to cherry-picked claims by the sprawl developers, despite Prop S, Escondido is virtually tied with the City of San Diego when it comes to meeting state housing requirements and actually produced a higher share of housing affordable to moderate, low and very-low income households.

Another measure similar to Measure A is the Ventura County SOAR initiative of 1995. The sprawl developers behind No on Measure A are again cherry-picking data to say it has had a negative impact on Ventura County, but the citizens of Ventura County would beg to differ. Voters recently voted to extend it to 2050.

In fact, Ventura County has been more affordable than San Diego every year since SOAR was passed, according to the California Association of Realtors. The home ownership rate is 10 points higher, and Ventura County has out-produced San Diego on housing in the last six months. Out migration is lower and the poverty rate is lower too. And, to boot, they have preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land and habitat. Sounds like it worked according to plan. MarketWatch even listed three of their cities in their top five best and most affordable places to live in California.

We’re certain that SOS will have a similar impact on San Diego County, by discouraging sprawl in fire country while incentivizing developers to focus on the areas where we have smartly planned for housing. Vote yes on Measure A for a better San Diego region and to keep developers and the politicians they influence from turning San Diego into the next Los Angeles.

JP Theberge is executive director of Grow the San Diego Way, a think tank and advocacy group that pushes for smart land use and housing decisions in the San Diego region. Dr. Lesley Blankenship-Williams, author and award-winning educator, has a Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is currently a biology professor at Palomar College.