The house is perfect. The neighborhood looks great. There's a spectacular view of the ocean.
It's an unbeatable combination, so you buy the home and move in.
But in the San Diego area and much of Orange County, that open space won't last long. Building, especially during the currently favorable real estate market, continues to change chaparral into shopping centers and hillsides into condominiums.
During recessionary times, that open space may be even more deceiving. A valley already zoned for commercial development may remain untouched for years until the economy finally takes an upswing and bulldozers turn your children's play area into a parking lot.
'Pay Extra for View'
"People are foolish if they don't anticipate growth and development," said Susan Lay, a planning consultant to builders and developers in San Diego.
"Unfortunately, people often pay extra for a view. The real estate sales people make promises, but they don't always know what is planned for an area.
"The facts are, if a homeowner doesn't have guarantees in writing or in his grant deed that a view or open space will always be surrounding him, he doesn't have any assurances.
"The biggest difficulty builders have is that residents don't understand planning and all the thought, effort and expense that has already gone into the zoning or community plan.
"The builder has paid a price on his land based on how many units he can build. The residents get involved after the development has all been negotiated and then the situation turns into an 'us-versus-them' fight."
Can a homeowner do anything to control development surrounding his neighborhood?
Planners and community activists agree that a homeowner's best defense from a zoning change that would bring high density or commercial development near his neighborhood is to know the planning process, work with community planning groups and build a sound case against the project.
"Homeowners forget how their house got there," Lay said. "They are living under the drawbridge syndrome, thinking 'I'm here first; this is my territory; I'll pull up the bridge so no one else can get in.' "
But that theory doesn't usually pass a City Council hearing. If the zoning change is controversial, a resident may have more success defeating it in a small, newly incorporated city like Poway (5 years old) in San Diego's North County than in the unincorporated county area even though the process is the same.
Review Official Records
The reason is that if a referendum is required, fewer petition signatures are needed. Furthermore, a new city may be more responsive to constituents, since some cities like Poway and Irvine were incorporated primarily because of planning issues.
A resident can easily research what is planned and zoned for the community by reviewing records in the city or (if unincorporated) county. Therefore, a decision can be made on the desirability of a potential project that could be built in the future.
If a project is zoned and permitted, there is very little, outside of purchasing the property, that a homeowner can do to prevent the development, according to Diana Dugan, San Diego's deputy planning director.
If the developer is trying to change the zoning or amend the community plan, all landowners within 300 feet of the lot's boundaries will be notified by mail of the public hearing's date and location. Other interested parties may find out about the proposed change in hearing notices in the newspaper or by attending community planning group meetings.
Of 50 community areas in San Diego, about 35 have planning groups. In the unincorporated area of San Diego County, inhabited by 400,000 people, there are 12 elected community planning groups and 13 others that are appointed by the board of supervisors. All developments are reviewed by these groups.
Architectural Review Boards
"They are the watchdogs over what happens in a community. They comment on particular projects and the board of supervisors or the planning commission listens to their recommendation," said Walter Ladwig, director of planning and land use for San Diego County.
In addition to reviewing plan changes, Valley Center (in North County) and Alpine (in East County) may be organizing architectural review boards to approve building design and landscaping of projects. This test program could be expanded throughout the county, Ladwig added.
Some community planning groups are more effective than others, Ladwig said, depending on their credibility, personalities and track record. These activist groups have reasonable input, access and influence on the City Council, added Chuck Woolever, San Diego's assistant planning director for administrative services.
Building a sound case against a project depends on the group's or individual's objectivity and interpretation of the regulations, Woolever explained. "Pick issues that you can rightly oppose and then you'll be effective," he said.
"Unfortunately, the homeowner often goes off on an emotional or political tangent and uses too subjective rationale."
"To disintensify (reduce the density) of a project, a resident must have good, hard reasons, like health, safety or welfare risks, such as insufficient water or sewer supply," added Bill Gutgesell, Vista's director of planning.
Once you have your sound case, you can protest at Planning Commission, City Council or Board of Supervisors hearings. If that body approves the project, you still may have the right to referendum or circulating petitions to get 10% of the voters on your side.
Fighting High Density
Then the hearing group must either refuse the zoning change or put your argument on the ballot. The developer also has the right to place his argument before the voters, according to Gutgesell.
Jack Tripp has been active in fighting high-density and commercial development in the Green Valley area of Poway for 10 years. With most new construction in this semi-rural area comprised of half-acre and larger home sites, he says he has had much success.
He attributes this to the "clout" he has achieved through the Green Valley Civic Assn., a voluntary organization of about 800 homeowners.
"If a community wants to fight a development, they have to be organized," Tripp recommends. "Fortunately, we've had our association for 25 years, so it was in place when we needed it. Usually, a neighborhood is hit with development right between the eyes, and they have no organization.
Importance of Expertise
"Then the group must demonstrate community alarm: letters, petitions and standing-room-only hearings. Also, engineering expertise is important.
"The city or county relies on the developer to provide soil studies and so forth. We have gotten our own studies to dispute their engineers on projects we opposed. Then be prepared to go to court."
Tripp agrees with planners that citizens are on shaky ground when they use the drawbridge theory in hearings. "But," he said, "when citizens rely on the 'bargain' approach, councilmen listen.
"We say that we had a bargain with the community when we bought our property. We were told it would be planned and zoned according to what was good for the community and we want that bargain kept.
"To leave vacant land undisturbed is unrealistic, but if you're organized, you can have an impact on how your community is developed."