by Carolyn Chase


The most important hearing to be held since the tantalizing term "Smart Growth" came into vogue around San Diego will take place at the County Board of Supervisors on April 5th when they are scheduled to take action to rezone 200,000 acres of lands previously zoned "Agricultural Preserves." These lands include much of the backcountry landscapes like the Santa Ysabel Valley which define San Diego's character and still sustain wildlife like golden eagles and cougar.

This action has been a political hot potato for years since Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR), led by recalcitrant activist Duncan McFetridge, prevailed in a lawsuit which proved the County's General Plan to have fatal inconsistencies regarding agricultural zoning.

A range of options is being considered, from disastrous to fair. On one end is the (Alternative 5) which would subdivide everything but high altitude and desert into 10 acre lots. It would allow about 10,513 dwelling units. This is the basic "ranchette sprawl" option. Real farmers could not compete with estate lot buyers for land, and legitimate agriculture would be harmed by this option.

Also on the table is a "Uniform Density" option (Alternative 4) which would use a base density of one unit per 10 acres, but allow clustering to 4 acre minimum lots. It would result in about 12,408 units. This is the total sprawl option.

On the other end is "Low Density" (Alternative 3), which sets a density of 1 unit per 80 acres and would result in about 3,135 units. The minimum lot size would be 80 acres. This is the option on the table that is most aligned with smart growth.

Then there are the "in-between" proposals. The staff proposal ("Project") is to set densities of 1 unit per 10 acre minimum parcel size west of the County Water Authority (CWA) service area, and 1 unit per 40 acres (with a 40 acre minimum parcel size) east of that line. Staff believes that this would facilitate small farms in the more westerly areas. It would, however, still allow most of the great ranchlands to be subdivided into 40 acre lots. Staff is also proposing a loophole, such that 10 acre lots could occur east of the CWA boundary if findings were made about agricultural suitability. Unfortunately, these exemptions occur in critical areas - the area along Highway 78 just east of Ramona, and in large areas of Rancho Guejito, the intact 20,000 acre Mexican land grant southeast of Escondido, once proposed for a State Park. Tourism would suffer and a future State Park would be precluded. The proposed findings would be subject to ambiguity and mismanagement. A variation (Alternative 1) called "Project density without valuable soils criteria" removes this loophole. Under this staff proposal, there would be about 5,108 total dwelling units.

No alternative sufficiently protects agricultural and ranching values. The 40 acre lots proposed by staff are too small for real ranches, and would eventually become residential ranchettes. There is also no evidence that even 80 acre parcels are big enough for commercial agriculture east of the CWA boundary. In San Louis Obispo County - which also has much more water than San Diego - ranchlands are zoned at up to 320 and 640 acre minimums.

SOFAR is laying the groundwork for another legal challenge sending out the following summary of their position:

  1. Reject the Environmental Impact Report as totally inadequate in project description, analysis, mitigation measures, and alternatives.
  2. Adopt an Agriculture Element to our General Plan to cover several hundred thousand acres of irrigated cropland west of the County Water Authority (CWA) infrastructure line.
  3. Adopt lot size minimums for Agriculture Preserve (Ag 20) farmlands and open space of 80 acres east of the CWA infrastructure line, 40 acres west of the CWA line, and 10 acres for prime farmland west of the CWA line.
  4. Environmental review to take place for any clearing or subdivision of land.

"The County's own Environmental Impact Report (EIR) assumes complete clearing of the 200,000 acres of Agricultural Preserve (Ag 20) farmlands. This would have tremendous negative ramifications on San Diego County's watersheds, especially those that fill our largest reservoirs: El Capitan, San Vicente, and Lake Hodges." Fourteen conservation groups have endorsed the SOFAR Alternative. The Ramona, Crest/Dehesa, and Boulevard Planning/Sponsor Groups have also endorsed the SOFAR proposals.

In a moment of political irony, if not just plain weirdness, arguably the most important vote on sprawl zoning will be voted upon only by three representatives of the urbanized coastal areas. And it must be a unanimous vote. The two elected representatives from the impacted areas, Dianne Jacob and Bill Horn cannot vote, as they both own Ag-20-designated lands that would be personally impacted by this decision.

How should these lands be zoned? Unfortunately this decision is only looking through the narrow lens of the SOFAR lawsuit about agricultural lands. While the acreage is considerable, this process will not address the vast majority of lands in the backcountry and does not look through the diversity of other important values: biology, aesthetics, transportation, sewer, etc.

The Supervisors should maximize their flexibility to connect this decision with the overall General Plan 2020 update which will revisit these issues and address many more. As a bridge to the 2020 update, will this decision make those long term goals more difficult or impossible to achieve? Or will it facilitate good goals in the update?

A key tenant of smart growth is that we should not allow large numbers of people to locate in outlying areas where taxpayers would have to foot the bill to provide services such as water, sewer or roads.

For those wondering how Smart Growth will be defined in the gritty realities of land use politics, this hearing will tell an important tale. The Board has pursued a lot of "Smart Growth" rhetoric and this is a litmus test to see what they really mean by it. Thousands of concerned San Diegans will be watching to see if the voting Supervisors - including Mayoral hopeful Ron Roberts - believe that it really includes sprawl zoning and displacement of real agriculture with ranchette commuters.