No Reason to Rush Development : City Council could lose the chance to control plans for northern-fringe reserve

At first glance, the San Diego City Council's vote on the future of the 12,000-acre urban reserve appears to have accomplished a number of long-held city land-use goals.

Under the policy approved Monday, the expanse of land in the city's northern fringes would hold 4,000 homes at most, the kind of low-density development for which San Diegans have long been clamoring.

The city's undeniable need for open space would be met by the thousands of acres developers will be required to donate in order to build in the reserve. One builder proposes to give the city 3,000 acres of open space (although nearly 1,000 acres would be golf courses, not the unspoiled hillsides that most of us consider open space).

And who could oppose the requirement that 20% of the homes be affordable by people earning $25,000 or less?

But in rushing to guarantee low-density housing throughout the area, the council appears to have lost track of what the land was intended to be--a reserve for the future expansion of the city when there is nowhere left to build, not an enclave primarily for the wealthy.

A region of low-density, low-traffic development might be advantageous, if affordable and even low-income homes were mixed in among larger homes and lots. But given builders' recent history of producing primarily high-end homes, we remain skeptical until we see how this will be accomplished.

The city also will lose the chance to plan the area--designing communities containing a mix of housing types, commercial developments and employment centers for the day when ever-scarcer developable land pushes the city into the reserve. That philosophy is designed to prevent the need for long commutes across this huge city.

Proponents of the policy don't want to risk losing the donated open space. But the city's own planners believe that, in the future, ever-rising housing prices outside the reserve will make it economically attractive for builders to construct a variety of housing types within it and still give up the open space.

Would voters, given the authority under the 1985 Managed Growth Initiative to approve higher-density projects, do so? Probably not today, and not in the near future. But in years to come, when housing prices outside the reserve have escalated, that may not be the case.

In passing that initiative, voters believed that they were giving themselves the right to approve or reject projects in the reserve. Because of a zoning regulation on the books before 1985, the council technically may not need their approval for projects zoned at one home per four acres. But it would be violating at least the spirit of the initiative to allow them.

We urge the council to reconsider this blanket policy when it comes back for final approval, or to take a go-slow approach as each project comes before it. After all, what's the rush?

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