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GP2020 plan moves forward - Local farmers speak out on issue

The county’s Planning Commission voted 6-1 April 16 to send a recommended general plan update to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors while holding a separate hearing on equity mechanisms which would be incorporated into the recommendations to be considered by the county supervisors.

A separate 6-1 vote gave direction to county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff to develop an implementable equity mechanism program using criteria developed by a subcommittee; although that program will be part of the general plan update to be considered by the Board of Supervisors the Planning Commission will hold an equity mechanism hearing prior to the Board of Supervisors hearing which is expected to occur this Fall.

“We can draft a program that fits into the general plan update,” said Devon Muto, the chief of DPLU’s Advance Planning Division.

Public comment, discussion, and recommendations on specific properties and roads took place at four Planning Commission hearings in November and December, although some of those issues were referred to county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff and returned to the Planning Commission during subsequent hearings. The February 19 and March 12 hearings addressed broader issues as well as the referred items, and the April 16 hearing addressed the entire package.

Some of the public speakers at the April 16 addressed specific properties or roads while others focused on the lack of an acceptable equity mechanism. During previous Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings on the general plan update, farmers had noted that the equity of the land is a critical factor in enabling farmers to obtain loans and thus leaving the land in agriculture. In June 2003 the county supervisors referred the issue of equity mechanisms to the interest group which has been providing input on General Plan 2020. That interest group consists of representatives from business and environmental interests, including the Farm Bureau.

Equity mechanisms include a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program in which a jurisdiction purchases development credits to preserve those lands from further development and a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program in which development credits are transferred from one location to increase development potential at another location. The county is also in the final stages of negotiating a contract with the American Farmland Trust to serve as a consultant as the county develops and initiates a Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) program.

The criteria developed for a conceptual TDR program includes that the program be mandatory based on General Plan 2020 density designations, that sending sites should be limited to properties which received at least a 50 percent reduction in density, that receiving sites include all properties upzoned by at least 50 percent as well as any future general plan amendments which would increase density beyond the general plan update, that transferable rights be based on a formula which includes site constraints as well as a review of property specifics, that transfers from outside to within the San Diego County Water Authority boundary could be allowed but with a limit to ensure that transfers are directed to village core areas outside the SDCWA boundary, and that the program should include an expiration date to provide time for the transfers to be realized and for the program to be evaluated for effectiveness.

The staff recommendation was to focus on a PACE program and to consider possible PDR and TDR programs following the adoption of the general plan update. “There is no legal requirement for a TDR program,” Muto said.

Implementing a TDR or PDR program after adoption of the update, including the downzoning, would not compensate farmers for the loss of their equity. “I can’t support the program as it is,” said Commissioner Adam Day. “It’s got to be a TDR.”

Day also cited the existence of 80-acre minimum lot sizes in his reason for opposing the recommendation to send the plan to the county supervisors. John Riess cast the vote against the TDR recommendation. “I have seen TDRs. It doesn’t work,” Riess said.

“We as farmers have been engaged in this process for close to ten years,” said San Diego County Farm Bureau president Mike Mellano. “It’s very discouraging to us that we’ve come to the ninth hour and still don’t have an equity mechanism in place.”

Farm Bureau presidents serve two-year terms. “The Farm Bureau message the past ten years has been consistent and simple: protect the farm equity,” said past Farm Bureau president Al Stehly.

“This plan is not complete as it does not address several key issues,” Stehly said. “I don’t think it’s ready.”

Duncan McFetridge of Save Our Forests And Ranchlands opposed equity mechanisms. “We can lose the benefit of large lot zoning,” he said. “You don’t have a vested right in zoning. You have a vested right in the actual use on your property.”

David Van Ommerling, who owns the last remaining dairy in Lakeside, addressed claims that downzoning was not a take of property through the loss of equity. “If it gets downzoned, who’s going to take? The bank will take it,” he said.

“That is a central issue of being able to carry financing from one year to the next,” Ramona grove owner Carl Teyssier said of equity.

“I do use that land as collateral,” said Bonsall nursery owner Gerald Church.

Church utilizes a line of credit of approximately $3.5 million for his nursery which has 220 full-time and 150 seasonal employees. “The unintended consequences of your actions are going to be felt by many nurseries throughout the county,” he

said.

“We need this complete package. You need to have something to the Board of Supervisors that allows equity mechanisms to go forward,” said Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson.

“It is a conservation and ag preservation tool,” Larson said of equity mechanisms. “You don’t have to do this, but it is the right thing to do.”

Henry Palmer, who represented the Twin Oaks Sponsor Group at the April 16 hearing, also noted that steep slope constraints were detrimental to farmers. “Some of the farmers in our area are suffering because of this application of minimum lot size,” he said.

Some speakers noted the consequences of insufficient housing.

“When you build one house you create a movement of families,” said retired banker and East County resident Jim Schmidt. “Affordable housing is a supply problem.”

Valley Center resident Pegi Prior noted that decisions were being made by older citizens. “It’s the young people who will have to live with their decisions,” she said. “Traditionally any community that chases out their youth to other places or cities has not prospered well.”

Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group chair Kristi Kor noted that tax and developer fee revenue for schools and other services are also casualties of downzoning. “We are very concerned about the economic impacts of the drastic downzoning,” she said. “We believe there is a better way to have a reasonable amount of density.”

The February 19 hearing addressed conservation subdivisions, which are also known as clustering. Clustering allows for a larger open space area with smaller residential lot sizes than allowed under the zoning map. The open space may be agricultural open space as well as a biological open space easement, and while the possibility that an open space parcel may be an agricultural easement makes the concept of conservation subdivisions appealing to the San Diego County Farm Bureau contingent upon simplicity and assurances the issues of smaller lots and potentially unmaintained open space created concern from community planning and sponsor group representatives. The Planning Commission’s recommendation is that conservation subdivisions should not be allowed by right but would be allowed to be processed if they are consistent with community and other guidelines.

Bonsall Sponsor Group chair Margarette Morgan is concerned that county staff is recommending some clustering in Bonsall despite her community’s concerns. “Staff is starting to change projects into conservation subdivisions,” she said. “Clustering of homes on smaller lots is a major error on the county’s part.”

The elements of the recommended general plan update were acceptable to Valle de Oro Community Planning Group chair Jack Phillips. “This general plan update is going to be pretty good for our type of community,” he said.

“We still are concerned and have reservations on the effect of the conservation subdivision ordinance,” Phillips said. “It’s something we can live with.”

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