Smart growth showdown

by Carolyn Chase


Ah, the conundrums of elected officials. Both Art Madrid, Mayor of La Mesa, and Chair of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and Jack Dale, Mayor of Santee and Chair of SANDAG's Transportation Subcommittee have both publicly lamented over the ironies of public opinions on growth, "The only thing people hate more than sprawl is density."

The irony is that if you don't like sprawl, you therefore want to contain - or densify - growth. So if growth continues, then you have to find ways to support densification. If you don't like density and you're really not a NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), then you have come down supporting an agenda to lower population growth. There are few other rational choices.

But politics is not rational and these are difficult choices. In general, politicians dislike difficult choices. It's much more fun to simply direct taxpayer money around the best you can. Actually having to address difficult changes goes against many aspects of human nature. But change we must. If people are coming, they have to live, work and be able to get around.

So what about growth? I always wonder - if growth is so important and so good for us all, then why doesn't anyone want it?

I've started to randomly ask people, do you have a problem living in a city of 4 million? How about a region of 4 million? (Current forecasts say San Diego County will hit 3.9 million) Or a region of 8 million? (If you include Tijuana we will be at this point within 20 years.) The most rational answer from an average member of the public who doesn't normally even consider such things is - are you kidding? "I don't know how many people there are here now! What I care about is what is the quality of life around where I live and work and can I get around easily to do the things I need - and want - to do." When these things are taken care of, population is not on people's minds.

The most common response from people who have some idea of what our population is - and have lived here at least last twenty years - is to become upset by the question. The irresponsible ways that growth has historically been "done" leads any thinking citizen to mistrust current promises of growth panaceas renamed "Smart Growth" - but without yet any real legal or financial commitments to match. The legitimate fear is that we will just keep packing people - and cars - in without increasing the amount of parks or open space; without taking care of water pollution, and sewage systems; without sufficient transit for those who want out of the traffic nightmare.

Densification without adherence to a plan becomes an urban nightmare.

Therefore, the public is rightly demanding that infrastructure and quality of life investments must accompany growth. SANDAG is currently a key appropriate body to assert financial incentives for growth through the way their funding allocations for transportation infrastructure are made. It only makes sense. If a local jurisdiction doesn't want the growth, they don't rate the infrastructure.

SANDAG should get serious about linking funding incentives to increased densification. But how densification is done is critical. While SANDAG is labeling their proposals "Smart Growth," how smart is it? Unfortunately, we can't really tell because local jurisdictions have dodged having to go on record about exactly where growth is going to be accommodated - or even if it's going to be.

The SANDAG population projections exist mainly as numbers on a boring one-page chart. Some cities have much higher increases in population than others (Carlsbad, 97%, San Marcos 93%). At the low end you find Del Mar 4%. The only other jurisdiction with less than 10% is National City. In general this certainly must reflect to some degree the available land and zones in existing plans. What's missing is an accounting of which jurisdiction's "fair share of growth" exceeds the legally applicable zoning in their general plans.

According to SANDAG, "There is more demand for housing to accommodate future growth than current local plans can supply. While there is an estimated need for 408,000 new housing units, existing plans provide capacity for only 312,000 units."

SANDAG has also provided their own working definition to what is smart growth: "Smart growth policies are the changes to existing policies that can be made to accommodate growth. There are three major components to smart growth.First, the highest densities should be located within walking distance of transit, along major bus corridors, and in traditional town centers. Second, mixed-use and mixed-housing types should be encouraged. Third, residential uses should be incorporated within or near large employment areas."

This is important work. The recently passed Regional Transportation Plan assumed that smart growth policies would be implemented.

On a recent conference call discussing whether or not the RTP complies with the Clean Air Act (conformity determination) and other federal regulations determining whether or not our region qualifies for federal transportation funding, the Department of Transportation pleaded with SANDAG to provide evidence that the Smart Growth land use changes would actually be made by the local cities. SANDAG was forthright that they could not provide such assurances. They provided a "One Year Work Plan" to "increase support" and "obtain commitments" during which they will "Develop standards/criteria to be used identify potential areas where smart growth could occur."

In a letter from the DOT to SANDAG on March 24, it states, (our) "ability to approve this and future conformity determinations containing similar assumptions will depend on the progress being made toward implementing the smart growth strategies." ... "it is important that SANDAG fully document the implementation" ... "If the results of the negotiations are unfavorable, we will be unable to approve TIP (Transportation Improvement Program) amendments..." Bluntly put, that means the region would lose federal funding. The conformity renewal deadline is April 29th.