San Diego's controversial Multiple Species Conservation Plan emerged from last week's elections as the land-use policy that will shape the landscape of northern San Diego and define neighborhood planning into the next century.
By approving the MSCP-planned Pacific Highlands Ranch and Black Mountain Ranch (Propositions M and K) and rejecting the Rural Heritage & Watershed Initiative by considerable margins, San Diego voters affirmed the MSCP style of negotiated land-use planning over a broad stroke ballot box rezoning approach.
There can be no question that the "Ranches" passed muster with the voters because of environmental organization and local planning board support, each of which exacted its own pound of flesh from property owners during 20 months of hard negotiations. Both developments had to be pedestrian friendly, place an unprecedented amount of lands into the habitat conservation program, and for the first time, contribute close to a $100 million into regional freeway improvements.
But earnest support from environmental organizations was not enough to gather much voter enthusiasm for the Rural Heritage & Watershed Initiative. Voters rejected out of hand this broad sweeping downzoning of the county's backcountry in spite of intensive campaigning by the Sierra Club.
The Rural Heritage & Watershed Initiative, which sought to draw an urban/rural line that would impose 40-acre and 80-acre lot sizes on 600,000 acres in the East Country. But voters resisted the temptation to fight sprawl the easy way through a one-size-fits-all zoning initiative.
The differences between the county and city measures were as much about process as content. The Rural Heritage & Watershed Initiative was a fossil of the no-growth era when groups fighting sprawl sought to determine land-use policy through blanket ballot box land-use restrictions. Propositions M and K were the result of planning around the city's MSCP guidelines, putting public interest groups and land owners at the negotiating table. Voters liked the results.
And when San Diegans approved Pacific Highlands Ranch, they got a lot of bang for their vote. Over $160 million worth of MSCP habitat preserve and recreational open space went with the deal at no taxpayer expense, including San Diego's crown jewel property, Carmel Mountain. This was a major victory for environmental organizations and the Carmel Valley Planning Board, who spent the better part of the decade battling for open-space preservation and to keep bulldozers off of Carmel Mountain.
The Rural Heritage & Watershed Initiative gained its appeal because of frustration with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors' abrogation of stewardship over the backcountry in favor of zoning rules favoring sprawl development. The refusal of the board to seriously cope with the specter of Los Angeles-style sprawl is evident in its weak-kneed habitat preservation program and recent upzoning of land in the East County into nice developable parts.
Unlike the city of San Diego, whose mayor champions MSCP, county leadership on habitat conservation is rarer than a gnatcatcher.
That the first project built around MSCP guidelines will be undertaken by San Diego's largest and most influential developer, Pardee Homes, is a dramatic first step for the city's conservation plan. Crafted by environmental and planning groups, Proposition M requires the builder to restore and conserve 1,300 acres of recreational open space and habitat preserve, build 15 miles of equestrian and hiking trails and design a pedestrian oriented village style community. These requirements cannot be changed without a vote of the entire city.
The "greening" of Pardee is an environmental victory of huge proportions. The Pacific Highlands Ranch experiment carries a big financial risk for a company used to doing business the old fashioned way. No one has marketed this type of community before. But faced with voters reluctant to cover their city in concrete, Pardee shifted gears and asked San Diego's environmental and community groups to help design a plan. The process paid off at the polls. Pardee's leadership can't help but influence future neighborhood planning to the benefit of the entire region.
The MSCP received its most powerful validation to date by the voters who rejected strict growth restrictions in favor of balanced planning. As a result, negotiations on a project-by-project basis around the principles of balancing development with habitat and open-space preservation will be the San Diego way into the next century.