By Miriam Raftery
May 13, 2018 (San Diego) – California law restricts counties from approving more than four General Plan amendments a year, a law meant to prevent developers from pushing through excessive waivers. But now a video reveals County Planning and Development Services Director Mark Wardlow proposing “bundling” together multiple projects far larger than current zoning laws allow.
By batching seven major housing and mixed-use projects into just three votes (one major development was already approved earlier this year), the maneuver could enable Supervisors to approve up to 10,129 housing units by year’s end in the unincorporated areas of San Diego County.
Grow the San Diego Way, a coalition of residents opposed to the action, states on its website that bundling, also called batching, is “a loophole that the County is exploiting and not to the benefit of the taxpayer who will be on the hook for the added infrastructure costs and fire risks associated with most of these projects.“
The organization notes that most of these projects are owned by out-of-town developers or land speculators who will not be here to contend with increased traffic congestion and fire danger.
At least four of the projects are in Cal Fire designated “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones” and DO NOT address evacuation congestion. For example, Harmony Grove Village South project is on a dead-end road where 30 houses burned in 2014, yet the developer obtained an exemption from fire authorities and won’t be adding a secondary exit route. Some fear that in a major fire, residents in the new development could be trapped, unable to escape.
Advocates say bundling is needed to win swift approval of projects needed to help resolve the region’s housing crisis. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that an estimated 16,500 homes are needed in the next ten years to make up for a shortage of housing and meet demands fueled by future growth. County spokesperson Jessica Northrup insists that the projects “have not been rushed through the process,” adding that all have been in the process anywhere from a year and a half to more than a decade.
But opponents of the projects suspect developers are pushing to get projects approved before the long-serving Supervisors are termed out, with two, Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, set to leave office after the November election.
In addition, bundling projects could provide a slick means of getting as many projects as possible approved before voters could approve a ballot measure that would require General Plan Amendments for major projects be submitted to public votes. Supporters are currently collecting signatures in hopes of qualifying the Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside measure for the November ballot.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob told the Union-Tribune that she’s never heard of bundling in her decades serving on the board. She added, “I certainly want to make sure the process is respected and that there is plenty of time for planning group input and a public process.”
Three votes are needed to approve or block the bundled projects. It is unclear where the other Supervisors stand on the scheme, however at least one candidate running till fill Bill Horn’s seat, Jacqueline Arsivaud, has stated that she believes bundling erodes public trust.
Residents with concerns about the bundling process or the projects are urged to contact their supervisors as well as Wardlaw.
The bundled projects are set to be heard by Supervisors in three separate public hearings, after first being considered by the planning commission.
On July 25th, Supervisors will weigh three of the projects: Harmony Grove Village South, consisting of 453 units west of Escondido, Valiano, a 377-unit project near San Marcos and Escondido, and the massive Otay 250 project, which would bring 3,158 units to the Proctor Valley area south of Jamul, including residential, commercial and office space.
On September 26th, Supervisors will hold a hearing on Newland Sierra, a 2,135-unit development west of Interstate 15 north of Escondido, similar to the Merriam Mountains project that was previously rejected by the board.
The third hearing is set for Halloween, October 31st, when Supervisors will consider Otay Village, a project with up to 1,530 units, Warner Ranch in Pala, a 780-unit housing project opposed by the Pala Indian tribe as well as environmentalists, and potentially also the controversial Lilac Hills Ranch project in Valley Center that the developer tried unsuccessfully to get voters to approve, so now the builder hopes to persuade Supervisors to approve what voters turned down.