It’s been a long wait for those interested in the future of development in the unincorporated parts of San Diego County.
Actions taken in 2018 will come to a head March 3, when voters countywide will decide two issues that could go a long way toward determining how large-scale development of the rural and semirural areas will proceed.
Measure B deals with the Newland Sierra housing development, Measure A with the approval process for future developments.
The Newland Sierra development was granted a General Plan amendment by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in September 2018.
The project calls for 2,135 homes to built north of Escondido on land where the county’s blueprint for future development says only 99 homes should be allowed, plus about 2 million square feet of commercial space. The development would be built just west of Interstate 15 north of Deer Springs Road.
Almost immediately after the supervisors’ 4-0 vote, paid signature gatherers and volunteers spread out through the county with petitions seeking to overturn the supervisors’ approval. The petition effort was funded by the Golden Door luxury spa, which is just south of where the project would be built and has been battling development plans for the area for more than a decade. Roughly $1 million was spent getting the signatures, which were obtained in less than three weeks.
Court challenges by developer Newland Communities fell short, and the initiative will appear on the March ballot, though the wording was changed by supervisors last month after Newland requested it be clarified. A “yes” vote would uphold the supervisors’ approval, a “no” vote would overturn it.
Money has poured in on both sides of the issue, and advertising campaigns are about to kick into high gear. As of the end of 2019, the Newland Real Estate Group has contributed more than $1.9 million toward the Yes on B campaign, and the Golden Door has contributed roughly $1.5 million to the No on B effort.
The second ballot measure is the result of a much slower petition drive organized by some of the same people who stopped the Lilac Hills Ranch development in 2016 in Valley Center. A lack of funding kept the group from getting enough signatures in time to make the November 2018 ballot, but eventually they got enough to qualify for a March 2020 vote.
Measure A would require countywide votes on every major project that has been granted a General Plan amendment. The building industry is strongly against the measure, as are many business groups and politicians, because they say it will worsen the housing crisis as developers won’t want to spend the extra time and money only to risk a public vote. Both the Democratic and Republican parties of San Diego oppose Measure A.
In recent years, development proposals that have gone to public votes, either countywide or more locally, have fared poorly. The electorate in the past has been unwilling to approve big projects. But that was before the housing crisis became a major topic of concern. The need for more housing of all types throughout the region has become a major selling point of Newland Sierra and all possible future projects.
Many also say such a measure would take the approval power out of the hands of the supervisors, which is what they are elected to do, and place the decisions in the hands of voters.
In a text message written to Supervisor Jim Desmond a month ago by Borre Winckel, president and chief executive of the Building Industry Assn. of San Diego, that was uncovered by a public records request, Winckel urged Desmond to seek a wording change in Measure A, called the Save Our San Diego Countryside initiative, or SOS, by its backers. The wording did not get changed because a deadline to do so had passed.
“The SOS ballot question, too, unless made more informative, will easily pass. Research shows that. Later today, we will share a 75-word ballot revision we ask you to share with Diane with the specific request for docketing the discussion on 12/10,” Winckel wrote. “It’s our only opportunity. SOS in effect takes your land use authority away. Please don’t let it come to that.”
Supporters of Measure A said the decision does indeed need to be taken out of the hands of politicians who are too easily swayed by the building industry and their campaign contributions. They say the San Diego County General Plan was updated in 2012 and should be adhered to. Granting amendments makes a mockery of the document that cost millions of dollars to prepare, they say.
The measure’s purpose “is to provide San Diego County residents with a stronger voice in how and where housing is built in the unincorporated county,” the campaign’s website states. “This grassroots initiative simply requires voter approval of proposed changes to the County’s General Plan that would significantly increase residential density in fire-prone rural and semi-rural areas.”
The housing development and real estate industries, led by the Building Industry Assn., have so far contributed about $360,000 to the No on A campaign, and the Yes on A supporters list about $80,000 in contributions as of Dec. 31.
One argument by opponents of the measure is that it would affect not just huge developments but also far smaller ones.
They say a vote would be needed for an amendment for projects that seek to build anything more than five homes beyond what the General Plan calls for on a piece of property. For instance, they say, someone who owns a 40-acre parcel in a rural part of the county that is zoned for only one house could seek to build at most six houses without triggering a public vote. The expense of going to a public vote would preclude, for instance, a builder of low-income homes from proposing a 100-unit condo project on that land because the cost and risk would be too great.
“The wealthy, out-of-state backers of Measure A wrote it to protect the Golden Door Spa, which campaign finance records show has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Measure A,” the No on A website states. “This luxury resort near Escondido attracts the rich and famous, who pay $10,000 a week. The owners are among the richest people in the world.
“These extremely wealthy Wall Street investors want to keep affordable homes far away from their exclusive hotel and force them into congested neighborhoods. Their measure exempts commercial and industrial developments, including casinos, hotels and expanding the Golden Door.”
Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.