By E.A. Barrera
April 4, 2012 (San Diego)--Under California state law, planning and sponsor groups of San Diego County's unincorporated areas are considered elected agencies subject to all the laws governing open debate and process. They have largely been a part of San Diego's planning process since 1968, but they are creatures of any county's Board of Supervisors, and exist at the Supervisors' discretion.
Over the course of this past year, a group appointed by the San Diego County Board Of Supervisors and labeled the "Red Tape Reduction Task Force" (RTRTF) prepared a sweeping report calling for elimination of the planning groups as part of a cost saving and efficiency process in land use and development. On March 28, that report was presented to the Supervisors and over 40 members of the unincorporated communities spoke up, demanding that they not abolish the planning groups.
Supervisors happily complied, unanimously disagreeing with the County's RTRTF that the planning groups should be eliminated. 2nd District Supervisor Diane Jacob asserted that Planning Groups "were not red tape" but in fact the "fourth leg" of a "planning table" within "grass roots democracy."
"It is regretful that we even have to visit this issue," said Jacob.
But did they? Not according to longtime San Diego environmental watchdog Duncan McFetridge. McFetridge, president of Save Our Forests And Ranchlands (SOFAR), blasted the entire meeting, saying the subject of whether or not to eliminate the community planning groups was a "smokescreen" for frightening the local planning groups to approve more development projects.
"This whole thing is a fraud designed to scare the planning groups into being more pliable to developers and their paid staff down at the County Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU)," said McFetridge in an exclusive interview for East County Magazine. "(Supervisors Pam) Slater and Jacob say the planning groups are not red tape, and they never had any intention of eliminating them. But look at the people appointed to that task force. Everyone of them is either a developer or worked at DPLU. Look at the way the Building Industry Association was so eager to see the planning groups disbanded.
Look at the name itself - "Red Tape" with the picture of a pair of white hands wrapped and bound in blood-red tape at the start of the DPLU presentation. It's all about letting the planning groups know that they better not be too tough with development projects."
McFetridge gained statewide fame in the early and mid 1990s when he and SOFAR won a law suit against the current Board of Supervisors, costing them a temporary loss of control for large areas of the county. All five of the current members of the Board of Supervisors - Diane Jacob, Bill Horn, Ron Roberts, Pam Slater and Greg Cox - have served as a team since the mid 1990s.
In 1994, SOFAR filed a lawsuit against the County over a plan to rezone 191,000 acres of farm property and rural acreage along San Diego's eastern edges. At that time, the county wanted to permit 8-acre minimum lot sizes on land that was then zoned at 80 acres per parcel. SOFAR won that initial lawsuit in 1995, when former Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell (now a Justice of the California 4th Circuit Court of Appeals) rejected the County's plan and ordered the County to come up with a new proposal for the farmland.
The Supervisors came back with a revised plan for the backcountry on April 5, 2000. But McConnell rejected their second plan as well and McFetridge's SOFAR continued their authority over the backcountry land for another two years until a humiliated Board agreed to remedy SOFAR's concerns.
"We are tired of being sued," said a frustrated Supervisor Dianne Jacob to members of the East County Construction Council on June 29, 2001. "Our plan has problems that must be addressed or we'll keep losing in court."
Among other issues which enraged McFetridge was the DPLU staff report statement that called for the Supervisors to "eliminate multiple bites of the apple during the development review permitting process" and the Supervisors call to end "duplication" in the development process.
"What the hell does that mean?" asked McFetridge. "They act as if going through the people first, through their planning groups, is 'duplicating' the process. These developers don't want anyone but the five members of the Board making decisions about their projects, and no wonder - how much money have they given those five to sit on that Board for the last 20 years?"
Among other proposals the RTRTF called for was two-year term limits for all future Planning Group members. The report cited repeated examples of California's Brown Act violations, which governs how elected bodies are supposed to conduct public meetings. The fundamental aspect of the Brown Act is the requirement that all public decisions be debated in public and no governing agencies be allowed to decide issues prior to public debate. McFetridge said this idea would eliminate local expertise and deprive the people of a proper review of any development project.
"To allow this current Board to discuss or scold the planning groups for their behavior, much less think of term limits, while the five of them sit at the same places they have held power for two decades is a bad joke," said McFetridge.
Supervisors rejected calls for term limits of planning group members, but tied new mandatory future training programs on ethics and practices of Planning Group members to future legal protection planning groups would have from law suits.
Repeated worries that violations of the Brown Act were occurring was also pushed by Supervisors as a need for reform.
"There should be no leniency on Brown Act violations," said Supervisor Bill Horn. "There should be training, but if you poll your members prior to a meeting of your planning group, I have no sympathy for that."
"I don't think we should put term limits on groups, but we should rotate Planning group chairs," said Jacob in her motion to save the planning groups.
McFetridge complained that the DPLU was dominated by pro-development advocates and said the planning groups were the only entity in the process looking out for the interests of the environment and community, instead of the developer interests.
"Look at how they consistently say the most important aspect of their job down at DPLU is Customer Service," said McFetridge. "In the staff report, they say things like 'Customer service must be a top priority in the land development permitting process' and they need to 'assign project managers early in the process and have them remain as the customer’s go-to person'. It's absolutely criminal. Their job is to protect the interests of the community and protect the laws that govern land use in this state. They are not supposed to be advocates for the developers," added McFetridge.
Once a proposal has been voted on by any elected agency of California, that proposal can not be returned for a new vote unless significant new information has come to light, or in the case of a development project, a significantly new proposal has been advanced. Development interests have been angered by the hoops of governmental process they must go through to bring a project forward, which includes the local community planning groups. The Supervisors angered the Building Industry Association (BIA) of San Diego County with their decision to keep the planning groups in tact.
BIA Government Affairs Vice President Matthew Adams wrote on the association's web site that the Board of Supervisors "decided not to tinker with the makeup or structure of its planning groups despite recommendations ... that called for term limits and modest experience qualifications."
"Some county planning groups have brought the ire of property owners and project applicants who say the groups act more like quasi regulatory agencies that demand design changes and multiple meetings rather than as an advisory board as prescribed by county law," wrote Adams. "Their approach leads to excessive delays that add thousands of dollars in project costs."
Adams reluctantly praised Supervisors for what he called their movement forward with "a host of regulatory improvements designed to improve the overall time and efficiency of its land use review process."
And Supervisor Ron Roberts added in a blanket blast to environmental regulations and advocates that their concerns were not always valid or in the best interests of the community.
"Environmental concerns do not mean you are on the side of the angels," said Roberts, adding that "it shouldn't take decades" for a project to be approved.
"It should take as long as the project requires to comply with the law and good standards of planning. The planning groups know this and these sorts of attempts at intimidation are vile," said McFetridge.