By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee
First, a huge Thank You!! to the Conner Family Foundation for a donation that grew the CNPSSD legal fund by about 50 percent. This was welcome income, as we may well have substantial legal expenses this year.
Hopefully, by the time you read this, you'll know all about GPA Bundling and that it was a kerfuffle. If not, here's my (perhaps belated) explanation.
GPA here isn't Grade Point Average, but General Plan Amendment. It turns out that California Government Code Section 65358 states that "no mandatory element of a general plan shall be amended more frequently than four times during any calendar year." What's the point of a General Plan if it can be amended to allow development at whim? Section 65358 then continues, "Subject to that limitation, an amendment may be made at any time, as determined by the legislative body. Each amendment may include more than one change to the general plan.(emphasis added)" This last sentence has come to be known as "bundling."
Back in March, Mark Wardlaw, the head of County Planning, testifying in front of the County Planning Commission, noted that the County has already approved one GPA this year (Lake Jennings Marketplace), and that there were six others in line: Newland Sierra, Warner Ranch, Otay 250, Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South, and Lilac Hills Ranch. Wardlaw reportedly noted that, County Planning "will be grouping them and bringing them forward to the Board of Supervisors."
In late April the environmental community found out. According to rumor, the GPAs were going to come to the Supervisors in the following bundles:
July 25: 3,936 Harmony Grove Village South, Valiano, Otay 250
September 26: Newland Sierra.
October 31: Otay Ranch Village 14, Warner Ranch, and Lilac Hills Ranch.
Heck of a trick or treat, that last one.
If you're wondering where Safari Highlands went, it's under City of Escondido jurisdiction, not the County, and I expect I'll hear about it later. Also, the rumors don't match what Wardlaw said (why is Otay Ranch Village 14 in that Halloween trick bag?).
The County's haste may be driven by the Save Our San Diego Countryside Initiative (SOS). By the time you read this, we'll know if the SOS backers collected enough signatures to get this on the ballot in November. Certainly, the County seems worried enough about the SOS initiative that they're trying to pass all these GPAs before the November election.
Also, the Board of Supervisors next year will be missing some very familiar faces: Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, possibly Kristen Gaspar (she's running for Darrell Issa's Congressional seat). The County population appears to be becoming more democratic, and (coincidentally?) Wardlaw is proposing bundling, even though Sup. Diane Jacobs announced in early May that she'd never seen it done and wanted a report on it before she did it.
Why is bundling problematic? There are two issues. On the one hand, it's bad for the sprawl promoters, because if the Supervisors pass a bundle, presumably all of it can all be litigated at once. For example, the double-dipping aspect of the Lilac Hills Ranch (which the voters rejected) can be combined with the execrable botanical analysis on Otay Ranch Village 14 for people to sue over both. This saves on litigation costs.
On the environmental side, the GPA projects I've read have some serious problems. Most propose high end housing in high fire areas. This is a double problem.
San Diego has a real surplus of million-dollar homes on the market, but we have very little at the $300,000 level where someone of median income can afford to buy a home. Indeed, the building industry seems to think that $500,000 is a good starting price for a home. The General Plan calls for more affordable housing, but so far, the builders are trying GPAs and expensive homes, rather than following the Plan.
Then there are the GPA fire protection and evacuation plans, most of which are coming from a single consultant. The problem is that many of these GPAs are in fire-prone areas. Valiano burned in the 2014 Cocos Fire, Otay Ranch Village 14 burned in the 2007 Harris Fire, Safari Highlands burned most recently in 2003. All these places need fire safety and evacuation plans, but the published plans boil down to the following: first, every household will be strongly encouraged to develop its own evacuation plan. During a fire, the sheriffs and firefighters, coordinating in an Incident Command system, will do a block by block phased evacuation so that everybody doesn't flee at once in a traffic jam of doom (whatever their individual evacuation plans were). The GPA evacuation plans assume that everybody will get out in an hour by doing this.
I was at a Planning Commission meeting today, listening to two fire chiefs tap-dance their way through this contradictory analysis. The sad part is, they signed off on documents saying that, somehow, this will all work. Worse, the Planning Commission seems prepared to believe them, even when over a dozen people testify that this isn't what happens in a real fire.
From the testimony at the Planning Commission, a very different evacuation scenario emerged. Some people (like one Planning Commissioner) have a plan that starts with "when we smell smoke, we leave." There are lots of people who have horses on their property (3-83 in the Valiano area). Add an hour or more to get home through the mass of fire engines and idiots out of their cars taking selfies with the fire (as in the Cocos Fire), an hour or more to pack when you get home (my evacuation experience), at least an hour to get your horses trailered, more hours in the traffic jam going out, and, oh yes, a fire that takes less than one hour to reach the community (one man timed the Cocos fire overrunning what is now the Valianos property in 54 minutes). This is not what's in the evacuation plan, and it's why I think "high end fire traps" may be the pithy way to think of these GPAs.
What can you do about this?
If you're a neighbor to one of the GPAs, speak up.
We need more people at County Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors testifying about the real conditions around all these developments. People are doing it, and we need more, with fire videos and numbers supporting how long it has taken them to evacuate during a fire.
Donate to CNPSSD and other environmental groups that are fighting sprawl. CNPSSD is not in litigation yet, but Sierra Club, Endangered Habitats League, Cleveland National Forest Foundation, and Center for Biological Diversity already are. Everybody's resources are stretched, so if you can donate, please do so. The GPAs are a blitz attack against rational planning in the County.
Contact your supervisor and tell them what you think about the GPAs. Be polite! If you don't want more high-end fire traps in the back country, tell them that you want to see more affordable housing in villages, not sprawl.
About Lilac Hills Ranch, yes, that may well be approved in October, so you'll have time to call or email your supervisor (again), tell them that you are very disappointed that Lilac Hills Ranch is going in front of them after the voters rejected it, and politely tell them that you expect them to follow the will of the voters in their district.
What was the voters' will, you ask? Thanks to a friend, I have the election results from 2016, broken down by number of votes per district.
1st District (Greg Cox): Yes: 85,204 (44.74%); No: 105,223 (55.26%)
2nd District (Diane Jacob): Yes: 87,059 (35.54%); No: 157,906 (64.46%)
3rd District (Kristin Gaspar): Yes: 86,314 (35.21%); No: 158,813 (64.79%)
4th District (Ron Roberts): Yes: 82,454 (34.51%); No: 156,440 (65.49%)
5th District (Bill Horn): Yes: 81,291 (34.04%); No: 157,512 (65.96%)
Total: Yes: 422,322 (36.46%); No: 735,894 (63.54%).
These are useful numbers to mention when you contact your supervisor. Supervisor Gaspar, in particular, might be interested to know that more people in her district voted against Lilac Hills Ranch than voted for her (she won 50.28%/115,295 to Dave Roberts' 49.72%/114,023).
All told, it's going to be an interesting year. Hopefully we can keep San Diego from sprawling out of control. And hopefully the County will be a bit more sane after the election.
And thanks to all who have donated!