Fact vs. Fiction: How Measure A Will Preserve Our Backcountry and Prevent Sprawl
By Cody Petterson
There's been a lot of lying and betrayal regarding Measure A (the SOS ballot measure), which is par for the course when the Building Industry Association (BIA) and a dozen of the region's most notorious sprawl developers hire Tony Manolatos to smear an environmental measure.
But the other day the organization "Planning Today for San Diego's Future," a BIA front, pushed out a Facebook ad that would've made Donald Trump blush. It demands a rebuttal. Toward that end, here are the facts.
If you find genuine errors, inform me and I'll correct them. Unlike the opposition, the environmentalists volunteering our time to draft, qualify, and vote YES on Measure A actually care about the truth.
"What is Measure A?"
The fight to pass Measure A is a brawl between environmentalists and developers over the future of land use in our county. That's what it is.
It's the Sierra Club, Endangered Habitats League, San Diego 350, Climate Action Campaign, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, Sunrise Movement San Diego, California Native Plant Society, San Diego Audubon, Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Volcan Mountain Foundation, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, California Chaparral Institute, Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, Fallbrook Land Conservancy, Escondido Creek Conservancy, along with the League of Women Voters of San Diego, Citizens Coordinate for Century III (C3), and our labor allies in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1931 and Unite Here! Local 30.
Those who are against the SOS initiative include the Building Industry Association, California Association of Realtors, Lincoln Club, Chamber of Commerce, Republican Party, and a murder of Southern California sprawl developers, including Newland Sierra, KB Homes, Shea Homes, Baldwin and Sons, California West, Fanita Ranch, Brookfield, Lennar, and the paid propagandists at the Manolatos Nelson Murphy public relations firm. That's the whole story. They've been successful in flipping some of our allies in office and in the affordable housing community, but that's to be expected when we're broke environmentalists and they're the region's most powerful, deepest-pocketed interest group. They have plenty of inducements. We have only our principles and our commitment to climate action and habitat protection.
The goal of YES on Measure A is to discourage the sprawl and leapfrog development that continues to destroy our native habitat, undermine the integrity of our county's General Plan, defeat our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off climate catastrophe, and prevent housing from being built where we need it — near jobs and transit.
The goal of the opposition is to preserve their ability to reap massive windfall profits by inducing compliant county supervisors to grant them General Plan Amendments (GPA) for sprawl and leapfrog development. The San Diego region has been the plaything of land speculators and developers for nearly two centuries. Our sprawling, traffic-choked suburban landscape is largely the product of their machinations and profit-seeking. Instead of focusing their investments in areas zoned for residential density in our region’s smart growth plans, the building industry continues to try to build in fire-prone rural areas — precisely the wrong places.
"What would Measure A do?"
Measure A doesn't alter the General Plan in any way. Not a single word, not a single zoning designation. It wouldn't affect Board of Supervisors decisions on any parcels other than those zoned rural and semi-rural in the unincorporated portion of the county — no cities, no county towns, no rural villages.
In concrete terms, Measure A would "require voter approval of amendments to the General Plan that increase residential density in semi-rural or rural areas" of the unincorporated county, unless the increases are minor (five additional units or less), the parcels are within a village or rural village area, or the amendment is "required to implement state or federal housing law, including laws related to the provision of affordable housing." That's it.
By requiring voter approval of supervisor-approved GPAs in rural and semi-rural parts of the unincorporated county, Measure A would provide an additional check on the rent-seeking and regulatory capture that is the stock-and-trade of our region's sprawl and leapfrog developers.
Rather than buy appropriately-zoned urban parcels and building up, developers find it more profitable to buy elected officials and land whose value is depressed by rural zoning restrictions, and then have their bought officials hand them massive upzoning windfalls. This game has been played for so long that sprawl developers have come to think of it as their right, and to think of the General Plan as something that applies only to suckers without the connections, consultants, capital, projects, and contributions to corrupt elected officials and other stakeholders. Some of us disagree.
"What's so bad about sprawl development?"
Many in the environmental community are deeply committed to protecting the native habitat, wildlife, and vegetation of our county, which is still the most biodiverse in the nation.
Long before anthropogenic climate change was recognized as the greatest threat to life on Earth, conservationists were fighting against the suburban sprawl that has been steadily destroying our open spaces for decades. But with the rise of the climate emergency, stopping suburban sprawl and fostering transit-supportive urban density has become the single most important thing San Diegans can do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, half of which come from transportation.
Sprawl development not only destroys and fragments habitat, it also increases commute times and total vehicle miles travelled (VMT), contributes to traffic and air pollution, burdens lower income households with significant transportation costs, and prevents us from hitting our greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets. Furthermore, in San Diego, sprawl means building in fire-prone chaparral in the canyons and ridges of the coastal foothills at the urban-wildland interface.
There are also substantial externalities of sprawl development that are ultimately borne by county residents and taxpayers. The general public is eventually forced to subsidize developer profits by paying for the costly expansion of freeways and extension of fire, police, and other public services. It is a ponzi scheme paid for by future taxpayers. And, of course, our children will have to struggle to survive in the climate catastrophe it accelerates.
"How does the county's General Plan limit sprawl?"
In 2011, the Board of Supervisors passed a comprehensive General Plan update, the first of its kind since 1978. This plan was the product of $18 million of studies, 13 years of analysis and public discussion, including 212 meetings with the full planning and sponsor groups, 109 workshops, and 216 subcommittee meetings.
The update was a compromise between a wide range of stakeholders, foremost among them environmentalists and developers. Like any compromise, no one got everything they wanted, but the update won acceptance from the environmental community by implementing a modest shift of growth from the county's rural periphery to the urban core — thus reducing habitat loss and ensuring future residential growth would be in closer proximity to existing services and amenities. It also won planning awards for its innovative implementation of smart growth principles and its limits on sprawl.
This shift involved a reduction in the zoned residential capacity of many parcels in the rural unincorporated county, and an increase in the zoned capacity of some parcels in the already developed areas. The plan therefore not only constrained sprawl, but incentivized transit-supportive urban density by eliminating the need for 780 miles of road by allocating development capacity near existing roads and infrastructure.
It's important to recognize that there is an inherent competition — for capital, home buyers, and public infrastructure and service subsidies — between urban density and rural sprawl. The region's finite supply of developers and equity capital has historically followed the sprawl path (i.e. buy officials, buy rural, obtain upzoning windfall, build out) which necessarily draws investment away from the path stipulated by our institutions and our General Plan (buy urban, build up). Sprawl and leapfrog development is not an accompaniment to climate-responsible and Plan-consistent urban transit-supportive residential development — it is a direct competitor for private capital, public subsidy, and home buyers.
The 2011 General Plan Update shifted the incentives toward smart growth and urban density, and General Plan amendments are almost universally attempts to drag us back to more profitable and environmentally-destructive rural sprawl that developers prefer. That's what SOS is trying to stop.
Now, as you can imagine, when you're taking on the sprawl development industry, there's going to be misleading, disingenuous criticism. I believe it's important to confront it head on, and I have rebutted the most common criticisms below.
"Isn't Measure A ballot box planning?"
The most frequent criticism, promulgated regularly by No on SOS and echoed by a number of candidates, elected officials, and other stakeholders is that the initiative is "ballot box planning."
Let's be clear. Measure A is NOT ballot box planning. It is not a planning document at all. It does not alter the zoning designation of a single parcel anywhere in the county. There's a lot of unflattering ironies in the claim, however. It's deeply ironic that this argument is being propounded by the BIA and sprawl developers, when the term was originally applied to attempts by developers to violate general plans and circumvent municipal officials by submitting plan-inconsistent developments to public vote.
Developers can and often do engage in actual ballot box planning when it suits them. If a local City Council or County Board of Supervisors refuses to give them the sprawl-facilitating amendments they need, they can, and often do, attempt to qualify a measure for the ballot.
Many of the same developers paying Mr. Manolatos to poison the public square with "but this is ballot box planning" have themselves happily circumvented elected councils with ballot measures that dramatically upzone their parcels. Manolatos himself is general consultant for Lilac Hills Ranch, which tried to pass Measure B in 2016, which was an actual, honest-to-God ballot box planning measure. The disingenuousness of these individuals is stunning. They're luminaries of the local disinformation industry. Give them enough money to pay their mortgages and luxury car leases and they'll kneel next to their beds and lie to God.
"Sprawl development can solve our affordable housing crisis."
No, it can't. Affordable sprawl development is a myth.
Let me say it loud for the folks in the back. There have been 17 GPAs approved or proposed since the 2011 County General Plan update and not a single one has included a single unit of deed-restricted affordable housing. That is, housing costing 30 percent or less of monthly income for a family of four making 80 percent or less of Area Median Income (AMI), which in San Diego County is $86,300.
Affordable sprawl development is a fairy tale that developers tell gullible, well-meaning progressives to help get their luxury developments past skeptical boards and councils. It's not a thing. The average price of a home in the unincorporated county is $30,000 more than in the City of San Diego. For households living on the margins, the transportation costs alone for living so far from jobs can eat up as much as a third of their income!
So let's get something clear. There is no housing in San Diego County that is naturally affordable, period. When one adds together the costs of materials, labor, engineering, architecture, land, permitting, financing, fees, and modest profits, there is no conceivable way a unit can be brought to market at a price affordable to a family of four making $85,000 (low income), $53,000 (very low income), or $32,000 (extremely low income) per year. None. Zero. Which means that affordability is entirely a function of our society's willingness to subsidize those units. And no rational society would invest in putting affordable housing in its rural periphery.
Subsidizing rural affordable housing would be wildly at odds with best practices — far from jobs, far from public and private amenities and services, and inaccessible to mass transit. The idea of choosing to house a family making 50 percent AMI in the rural periphery is preposterous. A family making 50 percent AMI is already having trouble affording transportation. Trouble affording childcare. Trouble finding work. To extended families and social networks. To jobs. It needs access to social services. The only rational place to invest in affordability, either through public subsidy or developer mandates, is in our job- and amenities-rich urban and suburban municipalities and villages.
There is already ample capacity in the region's General Plans for multi-family residential density where it is rational, sustainable, and equitable. The county has additional capacity for roughly 400,000 units, with around 230,000 of it zoned for multi-family residential of 20+ units per acre. That's enough capacity, and specifically multi-family capacity, to accommodate our Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) targets for residential construction for decades. Capacity is not our problem.
And SANDAG has actually reduced the RHNA housing target for the unincorporated county from 22,000 in the 5th Cycle to 6,700 in the 6th, because it's prioritizing residential density where there are jobs and access to transit, both of which are lacking in the backcountry.
It's true that some coastal municipalities have attempted to use initiatives to curtail multi-family density where it is appropriate, but the rural and semi-rural areas of the unincorporated county are not appropriate locations for affordable housing development. The entire argument rests on the premise that violating our General Plan, destroying habitat, and lampooning our Climate Action Plan by building on parcels zoned rural and semi-rural is a viable and valid avenue to achieve housing affordability. Which, obviously, the environmental community unanimously condemns. It is a sad statement of the ideological poverty of the affordable development community that some have allowed themselves to be co-opted by for-profit sprawl developers.
"Okay, but what if Measure A actually WAS ballot box planning?"
While I reject the characterization of Measure A as ballot box planning, it's worth asking the question, "So what if it were?"
From a progressive perspective, plebiscites often get it wrong. California has had some doozies: Prop. 13 (1978), Prop. 187 (1994), Prop 8. (2008). I spend a fair amount of my time wrestling with the baleful effects of some terrible state and local initiatives. On the other hand, it also won women's rights to vote (1911), the abolition of the poll tax (1912), the Coastal Zone Conservation Act (1972) which became the California Coastal Act, Prop. 65 (Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, 1986), Prop. 162 (Pension Protection Act, 1986), independent redistricting (2008), and Prop. 35 (Ban on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery, 2012). So, much like representative democracy's record, the picture is mixed.
Actual ballot box planning — in which developers use the initiative process to circumvent General Plans and elected bodies — is certainly problematic. That said, elected representatives also frequently get it wrong. The idea that the Board of Supervisors somehow has a better record of fidelity to the General Plan, and is therefore to be trusted more than the general voting public, is dubious on its face.
The ferocious opposition of the BIA and sprawl developers to Measure A suggests they know perfectly well that the Board of Supervisors is the weak link in the planning process. If buying Supervisors weren't the cheapest, fastest, easiest way to guarantee carte blanche for their property speculation and sprawl projects, they would have been doing 'ballot box planning' instead of successfully putting more than a dozen GPAs through the Board of Supervisors over the last eight years.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not direct democracy is good or bad is facile. It's necessary to balance the potential harm of direct democracy in this narrowly-defined context against the harm of not employing it. Every form of power has its shortcomings. I don't like any form of power, don't like standing armies, don't like bosses, don't like supervisors even. But these forms of power are desirable to the extent that the harms they prevent exceed the harms they entail.
Imagine if Measure A were an initiative to give voters the right to reject private prisons, or refugee internment camps, or mandatory invasive ultrasounds. Would you say, "Well, I don't like internment camps any more than the next person, but I guess we'll have to tolerate them because I have a real problem with direct democracy." Of course not. Any reasonable person would agree that the harm of refugee internment camps dramatically exceeds any philosophical qualms about direct democracy. And that's precisely how actual environmentalists feel when BIA dupes complain about 'ballot box planning.'
"I don’t like climate catastrophe any more than the next guy, but I have a real problem with direct democracy." Really? You have more of a problem with direct democracy than climate catastrophe? Than habitat loss? Than sprawl? Than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours a day? Really? Direct democracy may have its weaknesses, but when narrowly constrained to ratification of supervisor-approved General Plan Amendments that increase density in the rural and semi-rural unincorporated county, the harm of sprawl self-evidently exceeds the purported harm of direct democracy.
This is precisely why you never hear actual environmentalists — people who actually center the environment in their life and work — make the preposterous argument that we should vote against a patently environmental initiative because it might result in an excess of democracy. Even if one were strongly opposed in principle to plebiscites, it defies reason to argue that the purported sins of the plebiscite are of greater seriousness than the climate and habitat impacts of sprawl-promoting GPAs.
"But we're going to have a Democratic majority on the Board in 2020."
Well, we're certainly working toward that end this year, but another objection we hear is we're going to secure a Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors in 2020, so there's no need to worry about sprawl GPAs.
First, there is no guarantee Democrats will take the Board of Supervisors. Most of those individuals pushing this argument already understand that. We'll almost certainly add D-1, but D-3 could remain in Gaspar's hands — hands that neither you or I would ever trust with our General Plan, our Climate Action Plan, and the fate of our backcountry.
Second, even if we secure a majority, I have no faith that our majority would be immune to the inducements of the BIA, sprawl developers, and the various interest groups they suborn with paltry cuts of their windfall profits. I trust almost no one to consistently do the right thing for the environment. Certainly none of our elected officials. Not without sustained pressure from the environmental community. Not when there are powerful, deep-pocketed interest groups inducing them to do the wrong thing.
I know and respect candidates for D-1 Supervisor, and I've endorsed one of them, but I still wouldn't trust any of them to invariably hold out against sprawl-promoting GPAs, especially in Otay. I respect Supervisor Fletcher immensely, but even he could falter if the right project or proponent found its way to his strike zone. I trust one supervisorial candidate and that's only because she's been one of my best friends for 25 years. I'm eager to backstop all the rest. And I'm even happy to backstop her, because a truly environmentally committed and centered candidate would not be constrained in any way by this measure.
The only Board of Supervisors votes that SOS submits to countywide vote are approvals of residential sprawl projects on rural and semi-rural parcels, that are outside of village plans, that are in the unincorporated county, and that are inconsistent with the General Plan. If a supervisor can avoid that, they can avoid ever having to deal with an oversight vote at all. Easy as pie.
"But SOS is a Republican measure."
That is the lie that pushed me to write this piece.
The claim that Measure A, the Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside Initiative, is a Republican effort funded by Republican millionaires to preserve a Republican General Plan is so disgusting it makes me physically angry. As I wrote in the introduction, every single Measure A supporter I know is a Democrat. The entire organizing committee. Every single endorser. There's not a Republican in sight.
Measure A is currently exclusively a volunteer effort to preserve our open space, protect the integrity of our General and Climate Action Plans, and reduce our county's GHG emissions. It is supported by all of our county's environmental organizations and opposed by the BIA, the California Association of Realtors, the Lincoln Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party, Greg Cox (R), Jim Desmond (R), Kristin Gaspar (R), Ron Roberts (R), Bill Horn (R), Kevin Faulconer (R), John Minto (R), Steve Vaus (R), Randy Voepel (R), Bill Wells (R), Mike Diaz (R), Rebecca Jones (R), and all of San Diego's sprawl developers.
We requested contributions from local businesses and individuals who are aligned with our cause, and the Golden Door Spa provided a generous initial contribution to the SOS signature-gathering effort. The business model of the Golden Door demands solitude and natural serenity, and it has been allied with the rural communities with which it co-exists for decades. Successive attempts by sprawl developers to upzone neighboring parcels on Merriam Mountain threaten that natural setting and the surrounding communities.
As it happens, the Golden Door is fighting a parallel, unaffiliated battle against the proposed Newland Sierra development, which was approved as a General Plan Amendment by our pro-sprawl County Board of Supervisors. If voters defeat it, Measure A would incidentally add an additional hurdle to future attempts to upzone the Merriam Mountain parcels.
But that welcome infusion of cash was confined to the signature gathering phase. It's just passionate environmentalists and our cash-starved committee now. All volunteers. All committed to preserving our county's open space. Preserving our climate. Preserving our planet from the greed that's destroying it. It's the same folks who show up to City Council, to the Board of Supervisors, to SANDAG. The same folks that march, and canvass, and phone bank. The same folks who set up booths at Earth Fair and come out for beach clean-ups. Who lead hikes on weekends. Or plant trees. Or fix trails. Or manage community gardens. Who volunteer as docents at the Natural History Museum or Mission Trails Interpretive Center. That's who we are. That's who Measure A is.
Measure A would implement a narrowly-limited form of direct democracy, confined to the ratification of approvals by the Board of Supervisors of density-increasing General Plan Amendments (GPAs) in Rural and Semi-Rural parcels in the unincorporated county, excluding those within Village and Rural Village plans. Whatever qualms some individuals may have with direct democracy per se, the benefits of preserving our open space, protecting the smart growth strategy enshrined in our General Plan, facilitating equity and affordability, and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions far outweigh any hypothetical harm of this narrow application of direct democracy.
Please, join San Diego's environmental community and our allies in civil society and the Labor movement in supporting Measure A — the Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside (SOS) initiative. The future of our smart growth General Plan, our Climate Action Plan, and our beautiful, dynamic, and diverse county depends on it.
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