Effort building to get Safeguard Countryside initiative on November ballot

San Diegans for Managed Growth is working to get the Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside (SOS) on the ballot this November, aiming to give residents a stronger voice on development in the unincorporated areas of San Diego County.

SOS will require voter approval for amendments to the General Plan that increase residential density in semi-rural and rural areas.The measure excludes affordable housing and density increases of five units or less.

San Diegans for Managed Growth’s volunteer and paid signature-gathering campaign has been ongoing over the past few months—they will need 110,000 signatures by May in order to make the ballot.

“We deserve a vote,” said Gigi Theberge, an Elfin Forest resident and mother of three at R. Roger Rowe School. “Right now our voices as taxpayers are not being heard and they need to be.”

Theberge along with her husband J.P., a member of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council, have volunteered to spread the word about SOS and to help with signature gathering.

“I’m volunteering because it’s important to me and my family,” said Theberge, who is very concerned about proposed increased density’s impact on traffic and heightened fire hazards. In 2014 during the Cocos Fire, Theberge said the main roads out of neighboring San Elijo Hills were clogged and people were trapped in their driveways for hours.

“We have to do what we can to protect ourselves,” Theberge said. “It’s about our quality of life and our safety.”

Currently, only the San Diego County Board of Supervisors can make a decision on General Plan amendments with three out of five votes required for project approval. Theberge noted that surrounding cities such as Encinitas, Escondido and the City of San Diego require a majority vote by residents on General Plan amendments and the City of Oceanside is currently pursuing a similar initiative.

“It’s just the rural areas that don’t get a say,” Theberge said. “SOS will close that loophole and give residents in the unincorporated areas the vote as well.”

Theberge believes the initiative defends the General Plan that San Diego County spent $18 million and 13 years to draft, designating “growth in the right places”. The General Plan allows over 52,000 units to be built in the unincorporated county without requiring amendments.

J.P. Theberge said despite the plan’s accommodations for housing growth, “developers want the rules changed to benefit them.” He said developers seek amendments to the plan to clear the way for “massive, out-of-place housing developments” in areas that are designated for agriculture, open space or rural communities.

“It’s much more lucrative for developers to purchase under-valued land not approved or designated for high density and get three supervisors to vote for their project,” J.P. Theberge said. “It’s a worthwhile gamble for developers, they can triple the value of their investment.”

As a result, he said, taxpayers end up footing the bill for lacking infrastructure, traffic congestion, “wildfire evacuation nightmares” and more.

Examples of proposed North County developments that would require General Plan amendments include Lilac Hills Ranch near Valley Center, Newland Sierra east of Vista, Harmony Grove South and Valiano, both south of Escondido, and Warner Ranch near Pala.

Gigi Theberge noted that while the Rancho Santa Fe Assocation’s Covenant has restrictions on density increases, there are a few projects in the area to watch. Rancho Librado, which at one time included plans for 55 age-restricted units and four estate lots on the vacant parcel on Calzada del Bosque, is listed as a General Plan Amendment (GPA) “in process" under the project list released by the county as part of the Climate Action Plan on Feb 14.

Quantum Estates II Villas of Rancho Santa Fe and the proposed Sahm Family Foundation Del Dios Ranch project are not currently listed as GPA projects, but Theberge said the proposals could change over time.

“These three projects would bring 180 new homes to Rancho Santa Fe if built as planned, which translates to over 2,100 Average Daily Trips on the roads of the Ranch, and a commensurate potential increase in school population,” Theberge said. “There are additional GPA projects in neighboring communities that will lead to increased traffic and safety concerns within Rancho Santa Fe and through surrounding communities as well.”

So far the SOS initiative has been backed by groups such as the Sierra Club and Preserve Wild Santee, as well as the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council.

SOS has also found its opponents, such as the Building Industry Association of San Diego.

“This measure takes a meat cleaver to complex planning issues in unincorporated San Diego County, where 95 percent of private land has already been protected or set aside,” said Borre Winckel, president and CEO of BIA San Diego. “Over the last decade, an average of just 500 homes have been built per year in this area. This is not exactly uncontrolled growth. In fact, it’s pretty stagnant.”

Winckel argued that the measure will result in more commuter traffic as it reduces needed revenue for traffic improvements, schools, fire protection and public safety. The lack of housing already has a negative impact on the local job market, Winckel said, as businesses are having trouble finding employees as many have had to move away and are likely now commuting each day.

“Ironically, the so-called Safeguard our Countryside initiative does everything but,” Winckel said. “It does not stop growth or protect the backcountry. Instead, it encourages mega-houses on large lots, attempts to force more density into villages and cities and, worse, makes senior and affordable homes nearly impossible by outlawing density transfers.”

Kristin Gaspar, chairwoman of the SD County Board of Supervisors, also expressed reservations about SOS’ proposed changes.

“Our current process involves rigorous public review and consideration by planning experts,” Gaspar said. “My experience with a similar system in the City of Encinitas is that there are unintended consequences, including conflicts with state law that end up costing the taxpayers millions in unnecessary litigation.”

If the signature gathering effort is successful and 110,000 signatures are certified by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, the Board of Supervisors can either approve the measure directly or place it on the November ballot.

To learn more about SOS, visit saveoursdcountryside.org

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