San Diego County will update the housing element in its general plan

A worker carries construction materials at the Benson Place affordable housing project in San Diego in June.
Construction crews work on Father Joe’s Villages’ 82-unit affordable housing project called Benson Place on June 23.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County is considering adding an environmental justice element to its general plan, updating its safety plans, and adjusting its housing plans to discourage residential development in sites with very high natural hazards.

The Board of Supervisors Wednesday, April 7, directed county staff to make several changes to the general plan that it will finalize this summer. The board aims to ensure that the county can meet housing needs while avoiding development in unsuitable or unsafe areas.

The changes are also supposed to provide fair treatment for communities that have traditionally suffered damaging environmental health impacts, such as exposure to pollution and toxic materials. They also are supposed to help communities with high numbers of vulnerable residents, such the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with conditions such as asthma.

The state of California requires the county to show by 2029 that it has enough land slated for homes to enable construction of 6,700 units of housing, according to the county staff report. It is part of a state process called the “regional housing needs assessment,” which requires the county to measure how many homes, apartments and other dwellings it has and prepare for future housing demand.

The San Diego Association of Governments divides the county’s regional housing needs among its various jurisdictions and assigns each a number of housing units it must produce. If the county or a city can’t accommodate its share of housing under its existing general plan, it must rezone some areas to allow for denser housing development.

In San Diego County’s current general plan, the county prioritizes home construction in sites or “villages” throughout the unincorporated area that already are equipped for future development. That means these places have access to infrastructure, including water, sewer, gas lines, and electric and communication utilities, and they are not located on steep slopes or in environmentally sensitive areas.

The Board of Supervisors asked planning department staff to go further and analyze the effects of adding new criteria to those land restrictions, such as requiring developers to avoid sites in hazard zones and factoring in water availability, vehicle miles traveled and access to transit.

Vehicle miles traveled calculates the average daily miles driven by residents of the unincorporated area, and includes trips to work, school, grocery stores or other locations. The average for unincorporated San Diego County is 32.54 miles per person per day. Sites are considered efficient for vehicle miles traveled if they fall at least 15 percent below that average.

County staff members told the supervisors that with each extra restriction the county’s footprint for new housing development shrinks.

“Staff found that with each added layer of criterion, the amount of land available for development within the unincorporated area decreased, the number of eligible sites decreased, and the need for rezoning land to higher residential densities increased,” the staff report stated.

To address that, staff mapped out the unincorporated areas available for housing and offered two options. One would add all the board’s additional criteria but would reduce the amount of land open to development, and it would require rezoning other areas to make up for that.

The second option would add some criteria, without the need for rezoning.

The board voted unanimously to consider a general plan update that would direct development to areas that meet current rules and that have access to water and transit, are outside of very high hazard zones, and have efficient rates of vehicle miles traveled.

Supervisor Joel Anderson said he would like to leave existing business and industrial zones in place near unincorporated areas slated for new homes. He noted that these could provide local jobs and reduce commute distances for residents.

“When you think about high paying wages and wages close to home, it makes more sense to leave those in place to allow people to have a place to go to work,” he said. “We would have lower (vehicle miles traveled) if we didn’t say that only San Diego can provide jobs, if we had more jobs in the community.”

Updates to the safety element of the general plan would include improving evacuation routes, access and communication in cases of wildfires, floods and other emergencies. And it would add measures to improve the climate resilience of the county’s transportation, water, and energy systems.

The general plan would also gain an environmental justice element that would address such problems as air pollution, traffic, unhealthy housing conditions and people’s lack of access to healthy food, health services and recreation facilities.

Solutions could include limiting hazardous waste facilities, restricting heavy truck traffic in residential neighborhoods, adding renewable energy facilities, improving water quality, rehabilitating aging housing, supporting local agriculture and fresh food sources, and promoting youth activities and exercise programs, according to the draft environmental justice element.

Supervisor Jim Desmond said the county needs to consider expanding the areas designated as environmental justice communities. Funding to help with housing, parks and other amenities earmarked for those communities is currently directed only at South County areas, including El Cajon, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and Sweetwater.

“I couldn’t help but notice that there are no environmental justice communities identified in North County, even though we’ve got rural communities in Borrego Springs, Ranchita, Warner Springs, unincorporated areas of Vista that I think need to be included,” he said. “And I agree with Supervisor Anderson that we have to have jobs so that people don’t have to commute as far. That’s part of the disconnect that we have is that where people live and where they work are pretty far apart.”

The general plan updates for housing, safety and environmental justice will come back to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote this summer.

— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune