By Gary H. London
The passage of Measure A would be the most decisive land-use decision of our generation, making our regional housing crisis worse, while jeopardizing our economy, and perpetuating a carbon emission and environmental nightmare.
It is a misguided proposal that is anti-environment, anti-business and anti-representative democracy. But it is decidedly pro-sprawl, pro-out-of-town-influence and pro-NIMBY.
The defense offered up by the proponents seems to be based on a disdain for “urban sprawl,” whatever that is. I think they see this measure as a last line of defense against the development of master planned communities. You know, the neighborhoods, many of which begin with the word “Rancho,” where many of us live, and which have sustained San Diego’s development over the past generation.
That’s not urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is a tired old term formerly used to define the construction of subdivisions without building schools, parks, sewer pipes and roads. That cannot happen in San Diego and does not happen.
Instead, the proponents have a megalomaniacal disdain for growth, most visible in the development of homes. One would think they should be targeting the development of our economy — new businesses, technology clusters, the expansion of the military complex here — all of which employ more people which, in turn, induce housing demand.
Or perhaps they should be targeting natural growth: more babies being born than persons dying. That is what is currently fueling the most demand for housing. Babies grow up. They fill those jobs. But just ask any CEO or small business owner. It is hard to sustain a company, much less grow it, if your employees can’t afford to live here.
And, in fact, they move away. Ask your “baby boomer” neighbor where their children are living today. You will likely either hear a story of inadequate housing, stressful commuting or plane trips to visit the grandchildren in Austin.
Just ask firefighters, or schoolteachers, why they are among the 60,000 persons commuting from Riverside County to San Diego County jobs every day (a number which, incidentally, is forecasted by SANDAG to grow to over 100,000 by 2050). These commutes not only clog our freeways, they lead to significant carbon emissions.
Measure A will perpetuate urban sprawl…unless the proponents are looking at our county lines as somehow being the Maginot Line which separates us from the enemy. Let’s just pretend that we are solving urban sprawl here by causing it to migrate to Temecula and Tijuana!
Wouldn’t it be far better to be building along the Interstate 15 or Route 78 growth and transit corridors with great new communities, much more affordable for these same young heads of households, firefighters and teachers, rather than cause them to commute extra-long distances?
The homes would be more affordable, principally because they are not on the expensive coast. It would be great planning because they are on the transportation corridor, and near most of San Diego County’s major job centers.
This is not about “urbanizing” rural or back country San Diego County. That is the premise of Measure A’s reliance on the existing eight-year-old County General Plan. That plan promotes construction in places like Jamul and Borrego Springs. What possible sense does that even make when viewed from the lens of best locations for housing vis-a-vis jobs?
About 95% of the unincorporated county is permanently off limits to home builders anyway because the land is in environmentally sensitive set-asides, owned by various governments or Native American nations, or topographically unsuitable.
We have ample evidence that Measure A will not work. Ventura County passed similar measures in the 1990s at a time when they were experiencing strong economic growth. After its passage, Ventura experienced soaring home prices, out migration, and severe economic stagnation. They stopped housing development by destroying their economy.
I have been around the land use wars in San Diego for six decades. Antipathy to growth almost always boils down to resistance to change. I have observed that when people move into their own new home, they create a “Kodak moment,” an indelible photo which fixates these lucky homeowners to covet the neighborhood they were able to move into, then resisting change, and denying the rest of us that same opportunity.
In modern parlance, we call this NIMBYism.
The proponents are also arguing that we can fill our housing needs in other ways, such as infill development. The problem here is that when developers propose increases in density or height in existing neighborhoods, they get the same push back. The result is that proposed infill projects are denied or downsized. More soberly, we cannot build enough infill projects or units to come anywhere close to balancing the deficiency in housing supply in this region, which now stands in excess of 150,000 homes and stems from decades of inadequate supply. Most likely, we will have only built one-half of the housing units that SANDAG forecasted would be built by the end of 2020!
The other problem with the infill-as-the-solution argument is that it mostly doesn’t cover the most obvious need for housing in our region: young families with children. This market segment is woefully unserved, and for the most part they want to raise their families in the suburbs where there are yards and parks and trails — public and private places to play with their kids and their dogs. My developer clients are creating new suburbs with more efficient use of land that is more walkable and more environmentally sustainable. That is what will be off the table if Measure A passes. That is also why the opponents of Measure A count firefighters, police officers and teachers among their supporters.
The overarching problem with Measure A is that it is staked on “ballot box planning.” Measure A backers, and many other wealthy “no growth” proponents, paid to put this on the ballot. They sent out an army of paid signature gatherers to present a false future to gain the required signature counts. Now they want to employ that same technique to take out representative democracy — the Board of Supervisors — and rely on educating 1.6 million voters to digest the complex issues surrounding every land use decision, large or small (very small; as few as six units when you read the fine print). Somehow, I do not see that as a better way than the normal, long, deliberative vetting process in which all projects are now subjected.
The San Diego region is going to grow. The only real issue is, does this become a region of haves and have-nots? Wouldn’t it be far better engaging in a spirited debate involving updating our planning processes and ensuring that the communities that we approve are a tribute to our creativity and common sense? Measure A is, at best, a diversion to having those substantive discussions. At worst, if passed, it is a precedent for a dark future which will negatively impact or economy, our environment and our overall quality of life in this region.
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