More New Cities Mean Less Money, Growing Problems for County
Like adolescents seeking independence from their parents, the growing communities of San Diego County are leaving the fold.
Every time one of the towns takes flight, county government loses some power, and it loses the tax money the state has been sending this way to take care of the little ones.
The latest to move out of the nest are Solana Beach and Encinitas, the coastal communities that voted overwhelmingly for cityhood Tuesday. In the past decade, Lemon Grove, Poway and Santee preceded them. Now Rancho Santa Fe and Fallbrook are considering following in their footsteps. Some believe Spring Valley and Lakeside may not be too far behind.
Before long, county government in San Diego will be almost exclusively an agency for administering regional services, such as welfare, health care for the poor, the district attorney, courts and jails. Municipal services--zoning, traffic regulation, road construction and public safety--will be the domain of the cities that increasingly rule local communities.
“Up here, the feeling is we’re 60 miles from where five people (the county Board of Supervisors) with an extreme amount of authority are making all the decisions that affect our future,” said Roy Hiscock, leader of the simmering Fallbrook cityhood movement, expressing a sentiment echoed countywide. “All towns incorporate eventually. It’s a matter of when. I think the time is right for us now.”
County officials, who used to encourage urbanizing areas to form their own cities, now are more cautious because of the loss each incorporation means to county coffers. The Encinitas and Solana Beach incorporations will cost the county $2.5 million in the first year and almost $3.6 million annually after that, because the county will lose tax money from those areas but still have to provide the same level of regional services.
Officially, the county remains aloof from the local drives for independence. But the county is working to improve its delivery of services so that residents will be less likely to seek local control.
In the past 18 months, the county has studied the collection and distribution of funds in the unincorporated areas with an eye toward balancing the two. It has hired a high-ranking official whose job is to coordinate county services to those areas. Two towns--Valley Center and Alpine--are getting local design review boards to study proposed developments in their areas. Elsewhere, local planning groups are getting county staff help. And in Spring Valley, the county has asked cityhood boosters to put their hopes on hold while an ambitious revitalization program, similar to the redevelopment process used in cities, gets under way.
“The time will come when they feel their own parochialism,” Supervisor George Bailey said of the still unincorporated communities. “In the meantime, we have to do what we can to correct the mistakes of the past.”
But most observers agree the county’s efforts will only slow down, not stop, the formation of cities in the county and the annexation of unincorporated areas into existing cities.
Here’s a look at the three communities considered most likely to seek incorporation in the near future:
- Rancho Santa Fe. Leaders of the incorporation drive in the exclusive estate community of Rancho Santa Fe are preparing an application for the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees incorporation efforts, and collecting the 1,000 signatures needed to qualify a cityhood measure for the June, 1987, ballot.
The City of Rancho Santa Fe would follow the boundaries of the community’s protective covenant--a set of strict rules adopted in 1927 that govern everything from permissible landscaping to a resident’s right to hang laundry in public view. The city would likely rival Del Mar for the distinction of being the county’s smallest city with roughly 5,000 residents.
While growth is a concern throughout most of North County, the primary issue in Rancho Santa Fe is traffic--and the county’s proposed solutions to the problem. Ranch residents, who cherish the quiet life, object to the planned construction of several four-lane roads by the county, one of which would cut through the heart of town. Instead, civic leaders have fought for construction of two major highways that would bypass their town. Those efforts have been fruitless.
Another motivation for cityhood in the posh enclave concerns urban “amenities” the county requires of developments. These amenities--street lights and sidewalks, to name two--are anathema to Ranch residents, who say they detract from the country flavor of their neighborhoods.
Then there’s the local control argument: “It’s simply better to have home rule than rule by a group of people way downtown,” said Ed Foss, chairman of the committee lobbying for incorporation. “That’s the bottom line here and I think all of these incorporations reflect that desire.”
- Fallbrook. Hiscock, who fled the urban congestion of the Los Angeles area for a homestead in the country 11 years ago, opposed incorporation when it lost in Fallbrook by a 3-to-1 margin in 1981. The reason? He didn’t like the cast of characters posturing for posts on the new city council.
“They were pro-development types so I figured we’d be trading one lousy lineup for another,” Hiscock said. “No point in doing that.”
But now the players have changed, and growth and the impact of development on the rapidly urbanizing rural area have emerged as major issues in Fallbrook, which now has a population of about 27,000. As evidence, Hiscock cited the recent brouhaha between the county and a group called Friends of a Rural Lifestyle, which is suing the Board of Supervisors over county planning decisions that increased building densities in town.
The board has since approved a 45-day moratorium on the density increases, but the community is unappeased.
“There’s a lot of anger out here,” Hiscock said. “There’s a growing sense that we could do a lot better job governing ourselves.”
But with the lawsuit pending and a tight runoff election looming in the Fifth Supervisorial District, incorporation boosters in Fallbrook have agreed to wait a spell before mounting a serious campaign to rally public support. Hiscock predicted the incorporation question would be back before voters within two years.
Supporters of cityhood in Fallbrook say that while the area lacks industry, its commercial sector is thriving. There are four shopping centers of varying size, and the town is home to the largest Alpha Beta supermarket in the state.
“Like many towns away from freeways, we’ve just been sitting here awhile, doing nothing,” Hiscock said. “Now, we’re transitioning from no growth to slow growth. We want to make sure our growth is orderly.”
- Spring Valley. The committee working to incorporate Spring Valley has put their campaign on hold for a year, pending completion of the county’s revitalization program there. Committee Chairman Clarence Kaufman said cityhood boosters were asked by the county to put their effort on hold to give the program, which will use federal grant money in an attempt to clean up blighted areas, a chance to show results.
“We felt that rather than show bad faith we would put our process on hold for a year,” Kaufman said. “But I personally have no doubt that we will gear up again in a year or so. We could afford better services as a municipality and get control over land use. We haven’t exactly appreciated some of the county’s approvals on that score.”
The tentative boundaries for a City of Spring Valley would follow those of the Spring Valley Fire Protection District, which has a population of about 50,000.
Kaufman conceded that a county feasibility study done in 1980 for a cityhood drive under way at that time showed a city would be only “marginally feasible.” But he said incorporation supporters had “questions about some figures in that report” and are personally confident their community can support local government.
While Spring Valley lacks a significant sales tax base, it has a high population, meaning considerable property taxes. It also has three shopping centers and other isolated pockets of commercial development. The Chamber of Commerce estimates there are 1,200 businesses in town.
The most recent incorporation effort in Spring Valley was in 1961. Although supporters qualified it for the ballot, a heavy protest by opponents persuaded the Board of Supervisors to kill the effort, as they are required to do under state law, if a certain percentage of the voters in an area sign petitions against it.
Cityhood efforts in Lakeside have fizzled because of evidence that that area does not have the tax base to support city government. But Bailey predicted that Lakeside, Ramona and even Alpine may some day incorporate or annex to existing cities.
Supervisor Susan Golding said she also expects further incorporations, in part because the county cannot afford to provide a level of services sufficient to satisfy residents of the urbanizing areas. But she said as the county loses tax revenues when areas incorporate, residents in all areas will suffer.
“You shouldn’t look at the county as though it’s some entity separate from the people,” she said. “It’s not that the county loses revenue. It’s that the services supplied to all the cities and the unincorporated areas decrease.”
Golding cautioned against communities incorporating just for the sake of grabbing local control, without regard to the long-term effects of such a move.
“I think there’s a fear of what may happen to their communities,” Golding said of the drives in Rancho Santa Fe and Fallbrook. “It’s a fear of change. They like things the way they are now and they don’t want it to change. Sometimes you end up getting something worse than what you thought you were protecting against.”