County Plan Will Have 2020 Vision if Supervisors Stay the Course

September 22, 2003


Like many others, two of my college friends ran away from decaying Los Angeles some years ago to the rural reaches of Ventura County. They wanted to raise horses and breathe clean air.

Realizing that sprawl was creeping toward the ranch house like the zombies in "Night of the Living Dead," in 1998 they helped pass at the ballot some of the most drastic growth restrictions in the country. Changing the General Plan that guides future development in Ventura County now requires a vote of the people.

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

San Diego County came in second on the index, largely because of relatively short commuting times and low crime rates -- certainly not because of affordability.

Hoping to save what is left of the county's open spaces in the face of enormous housing pressure, the environmental group Save Our Forest and Ranchlands (SOFAR) wants to follow Ventura County's example by qualifying a ballot measure that would in effect draw strict urban limit lines around the county's eastern and northern rural areas.

If passed by voters in March, the initiative would take regional planning away from the County Board of Supervisors, who SOFAR believes is too beholden to special interests to protect the county's backcountry from sprawl, and throw it into the presumably wiser arms of the voters.

At the same time, a five-year, Herculean effort by the supervisors to revise the county's General Plan is about to bear fruit. The 2020 Plan should guide the pattern of growth along smart growth principles in the region's vast stretch of unincorporated communities over the next 20 years.

While SOFAR might disagree, the county's planning process was headed in the right direction, thanks to committed leadership from the board that brought many competing interests to the table, and a highly skilled staff to guide and implement their work.

Among the options now under environmental review is something called a "Working Plan," a hybrid that merges a map developed by environmentalists, business owners, builders and farmers with another map produced by property owners and community groups laboring on a separate but equal track.

The county's plan would concentrate population growth around already existing towns that have infrastructure in place, with circular bands of decreasing density from 2-acre estates to 160-plus-acre ranches and farms.

Of course, the Working Plan has detractors besides SOFAR. Most are among the large property owners whose hopes for more intense development rights disappear if their property is 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 give credence to the economic costs of sprawl in general. The large landowners 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 were 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 that encourage big box retail centers over walkable village centers 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 San Diego's City of Villages plan.

Communities forced to swallow more 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 will be up to par with development.

That is why a comprehensive process like the county's General Plan Update beats ballot box planning by miles. And that is also why the County Board of Supervisors must resist efforts by a few property owners to dilute their working groups' efforts.

On Sept. 24, at the request of a few property owners, the supervisors will consider whether to change course from the smart growth principles underlying the Working Plan by shifting uses for as many as 20,000 pristine acres to 1- and 2-acre ranchettes.

This would invite sprawl at its worst. Estate housing demands the most infrastructure for the least housing opportunities.

It would also surely give credence to claims that rural lands cannot be trusted to the county's stewardship, causing a stampede of already nervous conservationist and community planners to the ballot box solution offered by SOFAR's initiative.

In 1998, when Ventura voters approved ballot box planning, San Diego County voters rejected the idea out of hand in favor of negotiated plans around wildlife preserves. They understood that ballot box planning applies a meat cleaver in a world that calls for surgical precision.

The County Board of Supervisors should not abandon a process that they so admirably stood behind for half a decade. If they stay the course, San Diego County will deliver a sweet message to my Ventura County friends -- you should have moved here, because we know how to do it right.

Ross is a consultant and political writer living in San Diego.