Despite abundant evidence that North County residents are fed up with runaway growth, the area remains the first-choice location of most of the county's largest businesses, a veteran political consultant says.
Those conflicting views of North County's future make the area "a political powder keg" that will explode if business interests and real estate developers aren't careful, according to Herb Williams, a Republican consultant and pollster known for his connections to pro-growth candidates and causes.
Williams has just completed an extensive survey of the heads of 98 of the county's 600 largest employers. He polled the chief executives on 50 questions about the county's economy, their business plans, how government growth-management policies affect them, and other issues.
Asked to identify where they would put their business if they were to relocate today, 58.2% of those responding to the survey chose North County. San Diego was chosen by 18.4%; South Bay, including Otay Mesa, by 12.2%, and East County by 4.1%.
Of those who selected North County, 70.9% said they would move there because of the area's growth potential, and 17% cited the region's labor pool.
Almost 80% of those responding said they are "somewhat satisfied" to "very satisfied" with the current rate of growth. Of those who forecast population shifts within the county, more than two-thirds said they believe North County is where that growth will be.
But Williams, who has conducted 14 surveys in North County in the last two years--each of which included questions about growth--said the business leaders' affection for the region is in direct conflict with the voters' desire for more controlled growth.
Residents in Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos have been working to put growth-control initiatives on local ballots, and county Supervisor Paul Eckert's defeat in the June 3 primary has been attributed by many observers to his inability to shake his pro-growth image.
Proposition A, the growth-management initiative approved by San Diego voters in November, did best among residents along the city's northern edge.
"The voters are not dumb; they know there's a need for growth," said Williams, who ran Eckert's unsuccessful campaign for a third term and has been active in other North County races. "But they're smart enough to know you don't need uncontrolled growth, and they know the impact uncontrolled growth has on their lives.
"Voters no longer will have it shoved down their throats. If you try to shove it down their throats, you're going to have initiatives that are going to restrict growth by controlling the number of units that can be built."
The answer, Williams said, is for developers to be more sensitive to voters' desires while still accommodating the business community's pressure for growth.
"If I were a developer, with the political climate as it is in North County, before I took an option on a piece of land, I would find out what the reaction was to my proposal--before I invested the money," Williams said. "I'd make sure I had designed a project that was acceptable to the community."
Williams sent his survey to the county's 600 largest employers. With 98 responses from a range of different-sized companies, the results should be within 3 percentage points of reflecting the beliefs of those 600 businesses, he claimed. Williams is calling his survey the San Diego County Business Outlook, and he plans to repeat it annually with the same firms.
Williams asked a series of questions about the effect growth has on businesses.
In general, the chief executives responded that they believe local governments have handled growth well, but they said the increased population has affected their employees and their companies in different ways.
About 57% said the rate of growth has had effects on their employees, and of those, more than half said the effects are negative. The increasing cost of housing was the most-mentioned problem. About 71% said growth has affected their companies, and more than two-thirds of those said the effects have been positive, most often citing increased business and opportunities for business.
The business leaders said the county's economy is good (54.7%), very good (33.7%) or fair (11.2%). Only 1% said today's economy is very poor. The executives said they expect the economy to improve (62.2%) or to remain the same (27.6%), and 71.4% said they intend to expand their scope of products or services during the next two to three years.