The Ross Retort

 

May 16, 2003

County Does Smart Growth Smarter

 

 

 

Two of my dearest friends ran away from decaying Los Angeles

some years ago to the rural reaches of Ventura County. They wanted to raise horses and breathe cleaner air.

 

With sprawl creeping toward the ranch house like the zombies in the movie Night of the Living Dead, I warned these urban refugees, television producers whose political experience amounted to watching Frank Capra films, that politics was in their future if they valued their new life-style.

 

Three years later, on a shoe string budget, they helped elect slow growth County Supervisors and pass some of the most drastic growth restrictions in the country, including requiring a vote of the people to make changes in the General Plan that guides future development in Ventura County.

 

Today, Ventura County ranks the best among Southern California counties on the San Diego Union Tribune's "Aggravation Index." The new scale rates environmental quality, crime, commuting times, housing affordability, crowding and air pollution.

 

San Diego County came in next, largely due to relatively short commuting times and low crime rates, but certainly not because of affordability.

 

While city dwelling San Diegans experimented successfully with ballot box planning in the mid-eighties, voters countywide rejected the idea out of hand in 1998 in favor of habitat plans.

 

These were negotiated agreements between builders, property owners, community planners and environmentalists to design concentrated communities around habitat protection areas.

 

The driving force behind the negotiated habitat plans, now national models for balanced land use, was the Endangered Habitats League. This small group of smart people understood that a growing housing crisis would ultimately eat up environmentally sensitive lands if open space advocates continued to rely on expensive and time consuming project-by- project litigation.

 

The EHL is a central player in the five year effort to revise the County's General Plan that will guide the pattern of growth in the regions vast stretch of unincorporated communities.

 

About 18 percent of San Diego's population resides in 84 percent of the area stretching from the edge of Riverside County and Camp Pendleton to the Mexican border and out to the desert.

 

Unlike the city's bashed and mangled City of Villages growth plan, the county's planning process appears headed down the right track thanks to real leadership on the County Board of Supervisors, County planning staff skill and an open inclusive process.

 

In the next few weeks, the Board of Supervisors will determine a short list of General Plan options that will then go through rigorous environmental review over the next two years.

 

Among those options is something called a "working plan," a

hybrid between a map developed among a wide range of interest groups, similar in composition to that involved in the City's ill- fated plan, and one worked out among property owners and community groups.

 

Like the City of Villages' smart growth inspiration, the County's plan would concentrate population growth around already existing towns that have infrastructure in place with circular bands of decreasing density from two acre estates to 160 plus acre ranches and farms.

 

The "working plan" has its vocal detractors, mostly among large property owners who would lose a gold mine in potential development rights if their property were restricted to one house per 80 or 160 acres, and "live free or die" sorts who see land use restrictions as communist plots.

 

The latter never object to taxpayers footing the bill for infrastructure to support their projects, nor the economic costs of sprawl in general. The large land owners and farmers do have their point, one that could be addressed with a system of market driven density trades successful in other parts of the country.

 

But, even if the economic playing field was evened up among property owners allowed more density and those who are not, smart growth land use plans are difficult to implement as promised.

 

These plans melt into mush if state fiscal policies are not in tune with the new vision, design guidelines are unclear or unenforceable, implementation mechanisms are weak and financing of infrastructure is nonexistent-all poison pills in the City of Villages.

 

Communities swallowing density must have assurances that grading standards are enforceable to prevent the destruction of landforms, design standards are strong enough to ensure that arcadian notions of "towns" or "villages" will be strictly implemented, and infrastructure can be improved as promised.

 

Such assurances will be difficult to deliver if California's fiscalization of land use policy continues. Because the state takes 83 percent of property taxes, localities are dependent on sales taxes, making big box and blah blah strip malls more attractive than mom and pop shops and stops. This has to change.

 

The folks who labored on the County's "working plan" for future growth deserve a chance over the next several years to do what the city of San Diego did not-demonstrate that smart growth can work to the benefit of communities by dealing with the devilish details instead of designing an empty suit sold by a public relations firm.

 

If all goes as promised, San Diego County will deliver a better bit of advice than I did to my Ventura County friends-move here, because we know how to do it right.