Scrambling to cope with the impact of explosive growth in south Orange County, the Board of Supervisors today is expected to divide unincorporated county areas into five growth-management zones, where new development will be tied to improvements in roads, libraries, flood control, and police and fire protection.
Under the plan, which is expected to be adopted without opposition, developers will have to pay for improvements needed to ensure that public facilities meet specific service levels, especially traffic flow at intersections.
But the plan, by not requiring developers to correct traffic problems that are a result of previous commercial and residential growth, sidesteps objections raised in recent court decisions that invalidated slow-growth initiatives adopted by voters in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
The growth-management zones attempt to link neighborhoods that have common problems, life styles and facility needs. The area affected by the county’s plan is expected to grow by an estimated 600,000 people in the next 20 years.
The 11-member citizens’ committee that drafted the plan voted to disband last Friday. And some members expressed disappointment that more progress has not been made on efforts to protect rural areas from urban encroachment.
The panel was appointed by county supervisors a year ago in the heat of a petition drive that netted 96,000 signatures on behalf of Measure A, a countywide, slow-growth ballot initiative. Measure A failed last June by a margin of 56% to 44%, despite strong support in the less-populated southern portion of the county.
Approval of the growth-management plan by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday would be a “milestone,” said Michael Ruane, the county’s director of advance planning.
For the first time, Ruane said, growth in unincorporated areas, particularly the south county, would be phased and managed under a single plan. The plan would also require, for the most part, that developers pay for facilities and services before any construction can begin, a major feature of Measure A.
Ruane said the plan is an adequate safeguard against unreasonable and uncontrolled development, and he called it “as tough a plan as the court would allow.”
“We are very pleased,” he said. “It’s the foundation for a countywide growth-management effort and some interregional cooperation.”
Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who appointed the citizens’ panel last year when she was chairman of the board, said the group has performed as she had hoped. “We had to demonstrate (to the public) that we were listening, and this plan shows that we did, before the election.”
Former Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who headed the panel, said that county officials were moving in the direction of such a growth-management plan even before the slow-growth forces qualified their ballot initiative.
“I can even make a case that Measure A was a handicap to doing it in a more thoughtful manner,” said Nestande, now vice chairman of Costa Mesa-based Arnel Development Co. “As a result of the initiative process, there was a great deal of haste on the part of many developers to get under the protection of developer agreements. And now, there’s a great deal of confusion about which takes precedence--this plan or a development agreement that the county has signed with a developer in good faith.”
Indeed, a major disappointment to environmentalists is that more than 60,000 new housing units planned for construction during the next 20 years will be exempt from the county’s growth-management plan because they are protected by those so-called developer agreements, in which developers basically agree to help fund public facilities, including roads, in exchange for protection from future changes in county land-use policies.
Norm Grossman, a committee member on the boards of both Laguna Greenbelt Inc. and Citizens for Sensible Growth and Traffic Control, the sponsor of Measure A, said he is pleased with the plan. But he said he and some other panelists were disappointed that more progress has not been made on efforts to protect rural areas and natural resources, such as oak trees and ridgelines.
While anticipating further work by county staff members on the concept of buffer zones, Grossman said, the committee has recommended strict enforcement of policies barring ridgeline development as an interim step.
“Nothing in life is perfect,” said Grossman, who contended that no plan would have been completed without the pressure of Measure A. He said he is convinced that the plan will be enforced because of county officials’ plans to place a half-cent, countywide sales tax for transportation projects before voters in November or sometime next year. Polls show that voters want growth-management policies to accompany any plan for spending revenue from such a sales tax.
Grossman is on the citizens’ committee that is working on the proposed sales-tax measure.
John Erskine, executive director of the Orange County Building Industry Assn. and a Huntington Beach city councilman who also served on the citizens’ growth-management committee, said he is happy with the county plan and believes it is “tougher than most jurisdictions would tolerate.”
Ruane said county officials have 90 days to “fine tune” the plan before supervisors will take a final vote on the document. The plan will be reviewed annually, he added.
Before the citizens’ committee disbanded, it issued a controversial recommendation that the county establish rural transition (buffer) zones as part of the county’s General Plan, a legal document intended to guide county housing, zoning, land-use and transportation policies.
Environmentalists, in particular, believe that such buffer zones between new development and wilderness areas are needed to protect ecologically sensitive regions, such as the foothills and canyon lands of eastern Orange County.
In those zones, there would be limited development, large tracts of open space, and tight controls on use and access.
Incorporating those zones in the General Plan would give those areas a “higher stature” or priority, Ruane said, making it more difficult to alter the use of that land in the future.
The committee also recommended hiring an ombudsman to answer questions and concerns of the public on controversial development projects, and to give the county complete control of the environmental review process of development projects, which now relies heavily on consultants hired by developers. Both actions would improve the county’s image and improve the county’s credibility on development issues, the committee said.