San Diego’s Growth Future Is Up For Grabs

Area should let market decide

It has been said that you could line up all the economists in the world, and they would still never reach a conclusion. The same could be said for pundits of San Diego’s growth policies.

We’ve always had the stereotypical polarizing possibilities: builders who want unbridled capitalism and environmentalists who would be happier if we never “broke ground” again. However, as the debate evolves and the issues become more complex, the politics begin to blur. Such has become the case regarding the San Diego Rural Lands Initiative and the General Plan 2020.

The Rural Lands Initiative proposes to downzone backcountry land allowing only 80-and 160-acre subdivisions, effectively preventing development in these areas. This would place the emphasis for growth squarely in existing developed areas.

Such infill development sounds great, and growth is often planned that way. However, these plans rarely come to fruition. This is because while many people want to preserve open space, they and others often don’t want to live in the densities that infill development creates.

Noted urban planning guru Robert Lang, a leading spokesman for infill development, acknowledges that San Diego’s density is already high compared to other cities, but should be even higher to accommodate expected growth. San Diego County’s newly updated general plan proposes to increase densities by channeling all development in the western portion of the county, thus preserving the backcountry.

This sounds like the environmental mantra, but here is where the politics blur. The environmentalists are supporting the Rural Lands Initiative and in doing so, rejecting GP 2020, San Diego County’s newly updated general plan.

Deciding between the county general plan and the Rural Lands Initiative is almost like choosing the lesser of two evils. The Rural Lands Initiative is simply ballot box zoning at its worst, appealing to the emotions of voters who abide more by political allegiance than what is best for San Diego. The general plan, which essentially wins by default if the Rural Lands Initiative fails, was carefully thought out, but has the failing of all general plans in that it attempts to plan a future that is unknowable and relies on policies and a political process that do not effectively implement them.

San Diegans must decide which pain point to accept. If population grows as expected, we will either have less open space, higher densities, or an increasing housing shortage and affordability problem. There is no win-win-win in this scenario.

But, there is a choice. We could have these scenarios play out in the political arena, dominated by activists and special interests, which is typically the case, or we could allow market forces to allocate land resources most effectively. Markets have a way of determining what people want and what they are willing to pay for.

Aside from the few citizens that actually involve themselves in local growth matters, most San Diegans will be on the political sideline unaware of how these decisions will affect them. I am not advocating apathy, but surely the interests of the “masses” must be accounted for at some point as well as those future San Diegans who have no opportunity to participate in the planning process.

Here’s a summary of what a market-based strategy would look like. First and most important, “free rides” must come to an end. Infrastructure, like roads, sewers, water mains, utility extensions and treatment facilities, needs to be paid for by users.

If certain locations or development styles cost more to service, they will be automatically penalized by the market, thereby decreasing the likelihood of those potential developments getting built. Since it stands to reason that virgin backcountry would be expensive to service, in terms of infrastructure, we can expect development opportunities to reduce there dramatically.

Second, rigid zoning controls that control land use and density must be relaxed or modified. Many times, zoning actually works to decrease density and increase parking areas. The market for denser environments may exist, but may be currently unnecessarily restricted by zoning.

Last, but not least, land that is particularly environmentally fragile, scenic, or wild must be protected, but not by downzoning. In fact, one GP2020 participant introduced a grand idea where land “winners” could compensate land “losers.” Certain landowners will surely benefit from a market-based growth policy, or any other growth policy for that matter, because their land will essentially be upzoned. These winning landowners could use their paper windfalls to purchase development rights from landowners who own land that is to be protected. In this way, land gets protected forever and the losing landowners receive compensation for their loss.

The pro-growth, no-growth labels do not apply anymore. Some mix of increased density, loss of open space and housing supply will be determined. How it is determined is up to you. It can occur by the hands of election-driven politicians, ballot-box zoning, special interests and activists, or by all residents in the market choices they make. My choice is markets.

Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation