Requiring public vote will likely increase backcountry development
Last updated 2/6/2020 at 7:11pm
San Diego County voters will be considering a measure to require a public vote on general plan amendments which do not meet size, village location or housing need exemptions. The goal of the initiative is to preserve the backcountry from development. The requirement of a public vote is the worst way to achieve that.
If developers are forced to undergo a public vote, they will likely go directly to the ballot through the initiative process and bypass the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the county Planning Commission. This requirement will eliminate conditions placed on the project by those public agencies, and it will also eliminate the Programmatic Environmental Impact Report for those projects.
The most recent land use initiative to be brought before the voters was the Lilac Hills Ranch development proposal. The voters in the November 2016 election rejected Lilac Hills Ranch, but because the project had originally gone through the regular county process, deficiencies were identified which were used in the campaign against Proposition B.
The project was recommended by the county’s planning commission on a split vote with conditions, and the planning commission also made overriding findings regarding significant and unmitigable environmental impacts. Supervisor Bill Horn lived close enough to the property that he was required to recuse himself from the board of supervisors’ vote, and the concern about not being able to obtain three votes at the board of supervisors hearing caused the Lilac Hills Ranch proponents to seek a ballot initiative instead.
The ballot initiative lacked many of the conditions stipulated by the planning commission. The opposition used those along with the significant and unmitigable environmental impacts to defeat Proposition B.
Had Lilac Hills Ranch been taken directly to the ballot there would have been no planning commission hearing and thus no conditions. The relevant community planning groups would have had the right to review the proposal and take a position, but it would not automatically have been sent to the advisory groups.
Although the development itself would have needed an environmental impact report or a negative declaration, a citizen’s initiative is exempt from the requirement for a programmatic environmental impact report so the findings of significant and unmitigable impacts would not have been made.
If the proposed requirement for a public vote for general plan amendments passes, the project would go to the ballot box anyway. There is no incentive to go through the county process. The conditions of the planning commission, the programmatic environmental impact report, and the automatic planning group review would be eliminated by a direct citizen's initiative.
Some of the very protections needed to ensure that development is reasonable would be thrown out if all board of supervisors’ actions for the threshold were required to go before the county's voters.
The last San Diego County land use initiative to pass was Proposition C in the November 1994 election, which rezoned the Gregory Canyon area in Pala as a solid waste facility. A study to site a landfill in northern San Diego County indicated that Gregory Canyon was the least desirable site.
The preferred site based on the criteria was near senior housing in unincorporated Escondido. Horn’s predecessor promised the seniors that the landfill would not be built there. His alleged comment for siting the landfill in Pala was “cows don’t vote.”
Gregory Canyon Ltd. obtained enough petitions to qualify the landfill for a ballot. Although the signatories against the initiative included respectable community leaders such as Fallbrook Community Planning Group Chair Jim Russell and Pala Tribal Chair Robert Smith, those names were unknown in most of the county. The executive director of the Sierra Club signed the argument against Proposition C, and many residents who were unfamiliar with the area dismissed the opposition as environmental extremism.
Proposition C passed, although Gregory Canyon was never able to obtain all the needed permits for the landfill. Pala opened a casino in 2001 and eventually obtained the money to buy the property, so the Gregory Canyon Landfill will never be built. That does not negate the lesson that a ballot initiative can override constraints of the county process.
The last successful land use initiative to limit development was the Forest Conservation Initiative on the November 1993 ballot. The density restrictions prevented any general plan amendment until the December 2010 expiration date. When county staff reviewed those lands after the expiration date, most of the density was unchanged.
The primary exception was near the Viejas Indian Reservation. County planners and community leaders have learned that limiting development doesn’t necessarily mean a sale of the land to a wildlife conservancy.
Indian reservations have acquired land which becomes no longer subject to county land use policy and also not subject to property tax. There is also the anecdote of the developer spiting the county by donating his property to the Navy for military housing, which made that land not subject to county policies.
The public vote requirement does not apply to land use changes on Indian land. Landowners who find improvements too onerous may turn to the tribes to salvage the property investment, and this choice would not reduce activity in the backcountry.
Most land covered by the latest initiative is not near an Indian reservation, but what happened with Gregory Canyon and what nearly happened with Lilac Hills Ranch are more than possible. Requiring a public vote could lead to more large development projects in the backcountry.