Newland Sierra
The land near Interstate 15 north of Escondido that is slated for the Newland Sierra housing development. Photo courtesy of Newland Communities

A recent court ruling has brought into sharp relief the failure of our Board of Supervisors to act in the best interest of San Diego County residents over the interests of deep-pocketed developers.

Three nonprofit and community groups brought a lawsuit a year ago against the County of San Diego, arguing it had violated the General Plan in approving the Valiano and Harmony Grove Village South housing development projects. Petitioners argued the projects’ environmental analyses failed to show how the developments would prevent significant harm related to fire safety and greenhouse gas emissions. Both issues are required to be addressed under the General Plan.

In a tentative ruling issued on Jan. 27, a San Diego County Superior Court judge agreed with the petitioners.

This court case is just one more reason for San Diego County residents to be given the chance to reject General Plan amendments that would increase housing density in our fire-prone back country. Measure A, which will be on the upcoming March ballot, gives voters that chance.

In fact, if Measure A had been in place two years ago, it’s unlikely the county would have been dragged into this court case — because voters would have had the common sense to say “no” to hundreds of homes in areas likely to go up in flames before residents could safely evacuate.

This measure — also known as the Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside citizens’ initiative — reinforces the county’s award-winning “smart growth” General Plan. Under Measure A, developers who want to build suburban-density housing projects in rural and semi-rural areas zoned for relatively few homes will have to obtain voter approval before they can break ground.

Measure A will also encourage developers to build housing where the county needs it most, close to existing roads and public services, potentially saving taxpayers billions of dollars in infrastructure costs.

The good news is that we don’t need to guess whether or not Measure A will be effective in encouraging builders to develop the kind of housing our region needs most. Just look at the results of Proposition S in Escondido.

That citywide ordinance is similar to Measure A in requiring a public vote on any proposed project that would require changes to the city’s general plan. Under Prop S, Escondido’s overall rate of housing development has been virtually the same as that in the city of San Diego (which does not have a Prop S equivalent). Escondido has actually outperformed San Diego in making progress toward its state-mandated goals for moderate and low-income housing construction.

Why do our county supervisors keep approving massive sprawl developments like Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South and Newland Sierra? If their intention is truly to ease the housing crisis, they would be better off encouraging developers to build some of the 60,000 units already allowed in the county’s general plan. Those units would provide housing for residents with a variety of income levels that is also close to jobs, schools and other existing infrastructure.

Instead, our county leaders keep approving ill-advised general plan amendments that get caught up in court or defeated in the voting booth. County residents recognize the harmfulness of those proposed sprawl developments.

Measure A would ultimately speed up the growth of much-needed housing development. It will redirect the efforts of developers away from buying cheap rural land with the hopes of securing a zoning increase from the county, to actually building the homes that are already waiting to be built.

Moreover, Measure A would not prevent developers from using the general plan amendment process in areas that are already slated for development. For example, a general plan amendment that went before the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 29 aimed to build 92 housing units on a property in Spring Valley, just south of Santee, that is currently zoned for commercial use.

A shopping center now standing on the property would be demolished to make way for much-needed housing. Because the property is not in a rural or semi-rural area, it would not have to go to the voters for approval under Measure A.

Measure A specifically aims to prevent reckless developments that put people and property at risk from wildfires, increase taxpayer burdens and work contrary to the county’s long-term sustainability goals. To learn more, go to saveoursdcountryside.org. Then join us in voting “yes” on Measure A.

Jerry Harmon is the former mayor of Escondido and held that office when Proposition S was passed. Stephen Houlahan is a Santee City Councilman.

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