Suburban development in San Marcos. Image for the city’s website

The age of auto-centric, sprawling, master-planned suburbs is ending. In metropolitan regions across the United States—from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, to Miami, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston—sprawl has fallen out of favor.

The future lies in mixed use and transit-oriented, higher density development, even in our existing suburbs. Around the planet, a similar trend is unfolding across Western Europe, in Asia, Africa and Latin America— where elected officials, planners and the public at large understand that building outward, and at very low densities, is not sustainable.

Urban sprawl is just so twentieth century. Like smoking cigarettes, or overeating, it’s bad for our collective health. We need to let it go.

Climate change demands that we reshape our cities. Yet, some developers, along with their building lobby and real estate colleagues, want to ignore this. Global warming, driven by humans, is causing extreme weather events that are becoming the new normal—hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding, heat waves, drought, tornadoes, and… oh yes, wildfires.

Wildfires are something developers and the real estate industry here in San Diego would especially like all of us to forget about in the run up to the March 3 primary election and Measure A, the SOS (Safeguard our San Diego Countryside) initiative. The “No on Measure A” campaign ads are full of talking points to distract the public—with exaggerated proclamations about “Wall Street funding for SOS” (laughable since the SOS movement has a budget of a few thousand dollars) or slogans tagging the “affordable housing crisis,” when the majority of single family homes they would build on far-flung lands would be priced at $600,000 and up.

Meanwhile, the “No on SOS” lobby never admits that their master-planned suburb projects (like Lilac Hills Ranch, Newland Sierra, Harmony Grove or Valiano) are literally being projected for the very locations where San Diego’s worst wildfires have burned in the last two decades. They want to add more sprawl precisely in what CalFire calls the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones—on the eastern edge of the San Diego region along the I-15 corridor, near San Marcos, Escondido and Vista.

These are the locations where, in 2003, and 2007, dry Santa Ana winds stoked some of the largest megafires ever seen here, burning over 1 million acres, destroying more than 5,000 homes in master planned neighborhoods like the ones being proposed for Lilac Hills, and elsewhere.

The “No on Measure A” campaign proposes to add more fuel (housing) to San Diego’s burn zone, formerly the “back country,” on the eastern fringes of our region, what biologists now call the “Wildland Urban Interface.” Fire ecology experts tell us that massive tract developments, especially those perched on the edges of cliffs in these fire-prone eastern suburbs, become giant stacks of fuel that feed naturally occurring wildfires, turning them into raging infernos that become impossible to control, even with helicopters dropping buckets of water, or the finest fleet of fire trucks.

Three out of four homes built in San Diego since 1990 lie in this wildland danger zone. We need to figure out how to protect it in the future, not put more development in harm’s way.

In fact, the County of San Diego General Plan, updated and adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2012, was designed precisely to achieve that goal. It rezoned for urban expansion in or near existing development, in what it called a “sustainable growth model.” It specifically created two categories of zoning — “rural” and “semi-rural”– to protect “natural resources and community character” in the back country.

But, once this new General Plan was in place, the building industry launched a two-pronged evasion tactic: developers would purchase the cheaper rural-zoned land, then mount a campaign to convince either the public (via ballot box initiatives) or the Board of Supervisors (via General Plan amendments) to allow master plan development exactly where it is not allowed: on parcels zoned as “rural and “semi-rural.”

The SOS initiative was crafted to safeguard the new General Plan, and to put a stop to this building industry-inspired bait-and-switch technique. The “No on SOS” drive is simply another attempt to fool the public, and do an end run around General Plan.

Make no doubt about it—this region will burn again. Where will the building industry “experts” and real estate consultants be when our eastern corridor is on fire?

Lawrence A. Herzog is professor emeritus of city planning in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. His most recent book is Global Suburbs: Urban Sprawl from the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro.

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