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Growth-Control Issues: Picking Best Solutions

Having to sort through five competing car insurance initiatives--to try to reform insurance law that the Legislature wouldn’t--is bad enough, but at least the outcome will affect only a small part of most people’s lives.

Even worse is having to decide which land-use policies will best guide the growth of San Diego County, perhaps well into the next century.

Who among the electorate, even informed voters, has the knowledge and time to thoroughly research the three growth-control measures on the countywide ballot and the two on the city of San Diego ballot? Almost no one.

A recent Times poll showed that 79% of likely voters in the city of San Diego were undecided about Proposition J, the citizens’ growth-control initiative, and 65% were the same way on Proposition H, the City Council-sponsored measure.

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In the best case, many voters will follow the recommendations of organizations they trust, such as the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters or newspapers, which have spent time researching the measures. In the worst case, decisions will be made on the basis of the distorted claims of the building industry, which is inundating San Diegans with predictions of economic gloom. Or people will vote against measures whose sponsors they distrust, rather than on the merits of the measures. Or they just won’t vote.

What’s more, if any of the four binding measures passes, San Diego voters can count on having to make more land-use decisions, because amendments or revisions, in many cases, must go back to the voters.

This is not a script for sound, creative planning.

Planning decisions ought to be made by elected officials who have staffs of attorneys and planners. If the City Council and the Board of Supervisors had done the job the people pay them to do, they would have enacted the growth-control ordinances instead of putting them on the ballot.

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But that begs the question. The measures are on the ballot, and the voters will have to decide.

Our basic premise is that homes and businesses should be built only if public facilities can reasonably absorb the additional people they generate. And that means more than local roads, schools, parks and libraries.

For instance, if a large housing project is proposed for Encinitas and most homeowners will have to commute to San Diego, approval of the project should depend on whether public transportation and/or highways can reasonably absorb the additional commuters. Likewise, it should be determined whether the county’s air quality can withstand the additional traffic, whether there’s room in the dumps for the residents’ trash, and whether adequate social services can be provided.

The issues are more complicated than that, and the solutions are not black and white. Growth cannot be stopped, and none of the ballot measures proposes to try. Also, San Diego’s problems have as much to do with state financial constraints such as the tax-cutting Proposition 13 as they do with growth.

But, as the above example shows, the solutions ultimately are going to depend on regional cooperation, and only one measure takes a regional approach.

Yes on Proposition C

This is an advisory measure only; it carries no formal authority. But it is important because, for regional planning to work, elected officials in each city and in county government would have to relinquish some authority to a regional board. A strong signal from the voters could make them more willing to do so.

As proposed under Proposition C, a regional planning board made up of local elected officials would establish policies to deal with traffic management, solid-waste disposal, water reclamation, sewage disposal, air quality and industrial zoning, and the cities and the county would be required to adopt those policies.

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To be implemented, the measure would require state legislation plus an abundance of local courage. But such regional planning is what is needed.

We recommend a Yes vote on Proposition C.

Yes on Proposition J

We have serious concerns about both of these complex measures. The City Council’s measure, Proposition H, is anemic and the citizens’ initiative, Proposition J, may prove too stringent.

But some tightening of controls on development is needed if San Diego is to preserve its life style, environment and character, and be able to meet the public facilities needs of its residents.

An extraordinary amount of civic energy has been consumed in conceiving these measures, and this is only the beginning of the journey. So the question is, which measure provides the better beginning toward a solution that controls growth without strangling the community?

We think it’s Proposition J, because it has the stronger foundation and provides more incentive for refinement.

Until late in its drafting, we thought that the city’s measure offered the better approach. It provided a reasonable cap on building permits, tying that to regional needs and standards; required that a traffic-management plan be implemented and protected single-family neighborhoods and sensitive lands such as hillsides and wetlands.

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But, between the negotiating table and the ballot, the city’s measure was weakened. Gone is the tie between permits and regional standards, whereby the number of permits could be reduced if standards for such things as air quality, water supply and sewage treatment are not met. What the process showed is that, even with the gun of the citizens’ initiative to its head, the council was unwilling to get serious about protecting San Diego from the ravages of rapid growth.

Proposition J will force the council to get serious because the limit on permits is determined by how many regional standards are met. In its first year, Proposition J would allow about the same number of housing permits as Proposition H. But, gradually, Proposition J gets stricter, and, by 1991, only 4,000 to 6,000 new housing units would be allowed.

Would this cost thousands of jobs and double rents, as the building industry has claimed in its advertisements? Studies conflict on the impact of the measures, but they generally predict some increase on housing prices and some effect on jobs.

We deplore the scare tactics that have been used by some opponents of J. But we, too, are concerned that Proposition J’s housing limits may be too low and that provisions for balancing new homes with commercial and industrial development may harm the economy.

However, the San Diego Assn. of Governments and others argue that, only by slowing job creation will growth be slowed, because about two-thirds of San Diego County’s growth comes from people moving here for jobs. So, it seems that some sort of balance among residential, commercial and industrial development is called for.

But such a balancing act needs to be done carefully and with flexibility. Proposition H makes no mention of this need for balance, while J properly assigns the balancing job to the council.

If this balancing act proves unworkable or housing prices soar more than usual--or if other changes need to be made--the municipal code allows the council to rework all or parts of Proposition J and resubmit it to the voters after a year. Also, nothing prevents the council from enacting those excellent provisions of Proposition H, such as neighborhood protection and transportation management, that are not included in Proposition J, and we would urge this.

Proposition H calls for a reassessment by the voters as well. So as long as city voters are going to have to make land-use policy at the ballot box, they might as well start with the stricter standards of Proposition J. There will be no shortage of incentive to dilute the measure, but trying to strengthen Proposition H, without a whole new initiative process, seems doomed.

We recommend a Yes vote on Proposition J and a No vote on Proposition H.

Yes on Proposition B

Also on the countywide ballot are two binding growth measures. Proposition B is the less stringent and was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors. Proposition D, which is similar to the city’s Proposition J, was placed on the ballot by a citizens’ group.

Proposition B appears to be more carefully crafted than D, but B requires a leap of faith by the voters. The sensitive lands provisions are spelled out in detail, but the measure gives the Board of Supervisors a year to devise the housing limitations and to tie them to “quality of life” standards. Ideally, the voters should have more specifics, but if the supervisors follow through in good faith, the standards should reflect the diversity of the unincorporated area, which includes such dissimilar communities as Campo and Fallbrook.

The measure does contain guidelines, which say that the growth limits cannot exceed Sandag’s estimate of housing need and spell out several of the quality-of-life standards.

Proposition D has strict limits on housing, which also are tied to regional standards, and fewer sensitive lands exemptions. But, given the diversity of the unincorporated area, we think the supervisors’ plan makes more sense.

We recommend a Yes vote on Proposition B and a No vote on Proposition D.


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