Supervisor misses deadline to alter Save our San Diego Countryside ballot language

San Diego City and County Administration Building

In the March 2020 election, San Diego County voters will be asked to weigh in on the Safeguard our San Diego Countryside (SOS) ballot initiative, now known as Measure A.

Last year the San Diegans for Managed Growth gathered the signatures of over 103,000 registered voters to force the ballot measure that they hope will give residents a stronger voice on development in the unincorporated areas of the county. If approved, the initiative 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.

Last week San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond proposed amending the ballot language to provide “clarity and specificity” and to better inform voters of the nature of the initiative. Just before the board’s Dec. 10 hearing, the item was pulled from the agenda.

“I want to apologize to anyone that came out this morning to hear about and comment on this item,” Desmond said in a statement. “I believe this board letter would have provided transparency to a complicated initiative and would have better informed the voter. County counsel initially advised we were within the window to change the ballot language, unfortunately, the correct deadline was not caught until late last night.”

The ballots were sent to the printer the next day on Dec. 11.

The original ballot question asks if the county should go to a vote for approval “for General Plan amendments that increase residential density for property designated by the General Plan as semi-rural or rural.” Desmond proposed that the question be changed to ask if a county-wide vote “in addition to the current county approval process” should be required “when any General Plan amendment seeks to add six or more homes in rural or semi-rural areas, effective through 2038, excluding purely non-residential developments and developments in villages, located in areas such as Julian, Ramona and Alpine; to prohibit density transfers from higher to lower density parcels; and, to prohibit new specific plans through 2038.”

JP Theberge, director of Grow the San Diego Way, said the Yes on SOS group was thrown for a loop when they heard that the ballot language was proposed to be changed. The campaign is backed by groups such as The League of Women Voters, Endangered Habitats League, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, The Sierra Club and individuals such as former supervisor Pam Slater-Price.

“We presented ballot language that was neutral, clear and it was fair and unbiased,” said Theberge of the ballot language that was approved by county counsel and the board of supervisors.

In November, the supervisors approved changing the wording of another March ballot measure concerning the Newland Sierra housing project.

The supervisors approved the 2,135-unit Newland development in Twin Oaks Valley last September and a month later opponents gathered enough signatures to place a question on the ballot about whether the supervisors’ approval should be overturned by the people. Newland Communities threatened to sue the county over the way the ballot language read and although three supervisors approved the changes in an attempt to provide more clarity to voters, the new wording was very similar to what was proposed by Newland.

Chairwoman Dianne Jacob and Supervisor Nathan Fletcher voted against the decision, stating that the new language was unfair. The No on Newland Sierra campaign, which is largely funded by Golden Door luxury spa located near the proposed project, accused the supervisors of choosing “shady developers over the will of the public.”

“How do things like this happen?” asked Theberge of the supervisor’s proposal to change the SOS language.

“This is a citizens’ initiative put forth by citizens, paid for by people who are trying to do the best for our region. I don’t understand the motivation and the process by which this ballot language came to be,” Theberge said. “It sort of makes the case for why SOS exists, which is to take developer influence out of the process and let it be an honest discussion among equal parties and not driven by any particular influence.”

Susan Baldwin, president of San Diegans for Managed Growth, said Yes on SOS volunteers spent a week preparing for the Dec. 10 hearing item that was eventually pulled—the group submitted 70 comments in opposition online.

“The upside is this has galvanized our supporters and we will continue to fight on to protect our General Plan and to encourage housing development in the right places,” Baldwin said. “It shouldn’t occur in rural and semi-rural lands.”

While Yes on A believes the initiative will promote affordable homes for everyone, stop backroom political deals and prevent sprawl development, opponents argue that the initiative is a “ballot box planning scheme.”

Tanya Castaneda, representing the No on A campaign, said it was unfortunate that the language change had to be pulled and that the deadline was missed. She said it was disappointing that the Yes on A campaign was arguing to include language that is vague and leaves out facts that will help voters decide on an important piece of public policy. Castaneda said Desmond’s changes would have made the question much more transparent for voters.

“As it stands the ballot language omits key information including the fact that it would trigger a county-wide vote for adding as few as six homes to the county’s General Plan,” Castaneda said “The loopholes and exemptions that have been inserted into this measure by its backers Golden Door and others would completely exempt hotels, resorts, factories and other commercial and industrial development.”

Castaneda said if approved, voters around the county in urban cities like Carlsbad and Chula Vista would be making planning decisions for smaller rural communities, “taking away their local voice” rather than giving them a stronger one.

The No on A campaign includes a coalition of housing advocates, chambers of commerce, the group Save Our Rural Economy and the Building Industry Association of San Diego County. It has received endorsements from former supervisors Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, current Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and seven local mayors including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

“I’m strongly opposed to Measure A because it would worsen our housing crisis and damage our regional economy,” Faulconer said in a statement. “It‘s already nearly impossible for teachers, emergency first responders and young families to buy a house here — and this would make things even worse. The measure locks in bad policies that would drive more of our neighbors and co-workers out of town in search of cheaper housing, potentially forcing local employers to downsize or even relocate after our workforce has been drained of talent. That’s what happened in other California communities after they approved measures just like Measure A.”