Should there be more homebuilding in unincorporated San Diego County?

High clouds and clear skies around Cowles Mountain in the city of San Diego as seen from Mount Helix.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County Supervisors last week approved new county rules to expedite housing construction in unincorporated communities.


San Diego County Supervisors recently approved new county rules to expedite housing construction in unincorporated communities.

While it is unclear how much these relaxed regulations will spur home building, it is a notable change considering much of unincorporated San Diego County has traditionally been largely shut off to development or very difficult to get approved.

In 2022, 17 percent of all housing built in the county — 1,667 units — was in unincorporated areas. Considering it is such a massive land area, the final numbers were disappointing to housing analysts.

Environmentalists, in particular, have been particularly vocal about not building in the backcountry because of car pollution, fire risk and other factors. Judges often side with environmentalists in lawsuits, like a 1,119-home project east of Chula Vista that was halted in October 2021.

Q: Should there be more homebuilding in unincorporated San Diego County?

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

YES: Attempts to tackle housing affordability in San Diego require substantial additional supply. Unincorporated areas represent both a substantial opportunity and a complex challenge. Each development must be evaluated with appropriate consideration to urban planning (traffic, schools, hospitals), basic infrastructure (power, sewer), safety (fire, police), and environmental (impact on wildlife, air, water) concerns. Prioritize the best proposals, adequately mitigate the identified impacts, and require clear responsibilities for all municipal services.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

YES: But as much as I would like to streamline government bureaucracy and costs as it relates to building housing, I do not believe we should be building more in high-risk fire areas without very stringent fire protection building codes and funding for additional community fire resources. Safety trumps even more housing.

Norm Miller, University of San Diego

YES: Until such time as our population actually declines, we will need more housing. Out migration is more than offset by births. Coastal markets are saturated with minimal expansion room unless we relax the zoning height limits. Unincorporated areas are the only alternative solution. Instead of thinking about long commutes, we might encourage complete work/play/shop mixed sustainable communities. Residents will still scream about traffic and other harms until their own kids want to build or buy a home.

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

YES: But it should be low density as there are considerations and issues unique to building in unincorporated areas that must be addressed including zoning, regulations, and infrastructure (including the availability of water, electricity, sewer, public transportation, and schools). Other factors include enough support service infrastructure (fire and law enforcement), increased threats of wildfires in the unincorporated areas, traffic, requirements monitored by county community planning groups, and environmental general planning and zoning.

David Ely, San Diego State University

YES: The housing crisis in San Diego County is attributable to a shortage in the housing stock. For many years, homebuilding has not kept up with the growing demand for housing. Higher density in the city of San Diego and other urban areas is unlikely to yield all of the additional homes that are needed. Construction must also expand in unincorporated areas. Steps taken by county supervisors to streamline and expedite home construction are welcome.

Ray Major, SANDAG

YES: There is no question that we are experiencing a housing crisis in the San Diego region. All options to build affordable housing should be seriously explored. Current policies attempt to encourage building in areas where land is exponentially higher compared to unincorporated areas, making it nearly impossible to build affordable housing. Planning for smart development and a robust transportation system will mitigate negative effects such as urban sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

YES: There is a housing crisis and all viable areas should be used. That said, not all areas are viable. Areas with a high risk of fire or where endangered species would be threatened are not appropriate. Some regulation is needed, but in California, the current balance tilts heavily toward too much regulation, with NIMBY-folk abusing regulation to protect themselves. Current regulatory streamlining is a step in the right direction.

Haney Hong, San Diego County Taxpayers Assoc.

YES: There are risks and costs, but let’s not forget the benefits. Most important is that we increase the number of homes in the region, and perhaps we can slow the rate at which our cost of living grows in San Diego. While I want clean air and reduced pollution like anyone else, I also would prefer lower poverty, less homelessness, and more opportunities for families to achieve the American dream.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

YES: Onerous rules and regulations currently restricting housing development in unincorporated areas leave only the very wealthy able to afford to build there. Such restrictions should be eased in consideration of regional housing needs. Appropriate housing development can be relatively easily implemented in many areas, whereas some areas may not be as suitable for more development. Needs within each area should be assessed in consideration of the necessary infrastructure, transportation and support required to maintain additional sustainable development.

Lynn Reaser, economist

YES: County housing regulators will be viewed more as partners for developers than as opponents. Four new policies will be particularly important. First, permit approval times will be guaranteed at two to 30 days. Second, paperwork will be reduced on similar housing designs on different projects. Third, free pre-approved housing plans will be offered to developers. Fourth, help will be offered to developers to assure correct applications. Developers will still face lengthy delays from various lawsuits.

Phil Blair, Manpower

YES: San Diego’s housing challenges need to be tackled regionally, and not just by the cities located in the county. Rather than only force more housing only in already congested areas we should be studying opening up hundreds of thousands of acres of open county land. Fear of wildfires is not a valid excuse anymore.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

YES: The county is merely nibbling along the edges of what they could achieve in solving the housing crisis. Relaxed regulations are certainly welcome, but that alone will not build housing. Our region’s only true housing solution is to open up relatively small portions of San Diego County’s vast unincorporated lands for master-planned communities. Lands that are environmentally sensitive or remote need not participate. But lands near freeway corridors or near employment centers are prime candidates.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

YES: The biggest economic (and social) problem in San Diego is the lack of affordable housing in the region. A big reason for the high cost of housing is that not enough housing is being built. One reason for that is a shortage of land on which housing can be built. Opening some of the unincorporated areas of San Diego County would help in that regard. But the development should not be unlimited, with environmental concerns considered.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

YES: We are woefully underbuilt and need more housing. There is no reason why land cannot be identified and approved for building where utilities are easy to access, fire is not a major hazard and distance to the city center is reasonable. With today’s remote workers and the number of people who would enjoy rural lifestyles, this is a good idea. Squeezing others out will hurt our economic growth in the long term.

Kirti Gupta, Qualcomm

Not participating this week.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

YES: Building in the backcountry imposes costs on everyone, including more expensive fire protection, contributions to global warming, and loss of habitat. But there are also potential benefits for San Diego such as lower housing costs and higher incomes. Rather than banning construction outright, the key is to charge developers a fee and require mitigation to cover the complete costs. With a sensible approach to costs and benefits, we can have smart growth and preserve the environment.

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