San Diego is using zero-emissions buses. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Wednesday in favor of measures to speed up new housing development in what are considered key growth areas, in compliance with a state law.

After a staff presentation and an hour-long public hearing, supervisors also voted to permanently exempt affordable housing development from vehicle miles traveled costs throughout unincorporated areas, in connection with a state law signed in 2013 by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher, Vice Chairwoman Nora Vargas and Supervisor Terra Lawson voted in favor of the proposals, while Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond were opposed.

Senate Bill 743 focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and particulates, encourages infill development instead of sprawl and promotes public transportation.

The law requires governing bodies to provide an analysis of vehicle miles traveled, which measures the amount and distance people drive to destinations, and the number of trips specific types of land uses will generate.

Along with approving and exempting over 4,000 housing units from VMT costs, the measures also aim to:

  • drive residential development in the areas best positioned for near-term growth
  • align housing development plans with state and local air quality and emissions goals
  • allows the county to establish a long-term VMT mitigation strategy to ensure continued housing development in unincorporated areas

According to Fletcher’s office, none of the actions taken Wednesday impact housing or land use in the county’s 18 incorporated cities.

In January, Planning and Development Services staff members presented options to supervisors, who postponed a decision until Wednesday’s meeting.

In September, the board voted 4-0 to rescind a transportation study guide connected to future development plans, after the governor’s Office of Planning and Research released new guidance for VMT analysis.

Before voting Wednesday, Fletcher said supervisors needed to “do things that are new and different” by approving a plan that can survive legal scrutiny.

He said fighting climate change while also addressing housing needs “has been a vexing issue” that county government has faced for quite some time. Fletcher said the county must comply with state law, even if some aren’t happy with the supervisors’ decision.

Anderson credited county Planning & Development Services staff for their hard work on various options that would balance environmental needs with a lack of housing. Anderson said a year from now, the board should review how many homes were built and change course if necessary.

“We have to use data that makes sense and do stuff that leads to a better outcome and not just keeping talking … and never building,” he said.

“I’m at that age where everyone’s visiting their kids in another state” Anderson added, referring to people departing California for less-expensive housing elsewhere.

During the public hearing, supporters urged the board to choose wiser forms of development near mass transit, while opponents said such proposals won’t solve the lack of housing for middle-class families or help local agriculture.

Chris Anderson, president of the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors and no relation to Joel Anderson, said the board should “stand up for housing” as he said San Diego is now the least affordable place to live in the entire nation.

“We’re witnessing the consequences of failing to address the housing crisis,” Anderson said, adding that it’s “not farfetched to name this proposal the Riverside County Growth Initiative.”

A Carlsbad woman urged the county to press forward with a more ecologically friendly model. The woman said she grew up in the 1950s, when sprawl development was the norm, and it was just assumed “that we’d all have the suburban life and jump in our cars and go shopping.”

“If we only knew then what we know now. We need a new story. Change is really painful (but) thank you for taking the lead on this,” she told the board.

In a related action Wednesday, supervisors unanimously voted to receive an updated report on the county’s plan to reach zero-carbon emissions by 2035. The board commissioned the report in January 2021, but a final version won’t be ready until this August.

Updated at 5:09 p.m. February 9, 2022

City News Service contributed to this article.