A backcountry building moratorium

By Doug Bell

September 21, 2000

"What is required is that the county make a good-faith effort to go afoot and afield in San Diego and come back with a reasonable assessment of what the county stands to lose as a result of the project."

So said Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell in handing the County of San Diego its latest failing grade for ignoring state law and proposing to rezone 191,000 acres of rural open space without adequate environmental review.

It was a gentle rebuke, considering the judge and county residents had been waiting five years for the county to comply with her earlier, nearly identical ruling in 1996. But repeat offenders at the county Planning Department and the Board of Supervisors put the order on hold, finally turning to attorneys, not scientists, to make their case in court. They argued that, while, yes, there would be significant impacts under the new plan (GPA 96-03), there was no way of knowing what those impacts might be since, lacking a crystal ball, they could not predict the future.

Following this logic, the county could close the Sheriff's Department for lack of specific knowledge of future crimes.

Undone completely in this stunning display of legal delinquency and hubris are the "smart growth" pretensions of the county Board of Supervisors which, having failed once before to follow state environmental law, and having rejected (and illegally campaigned against) Proposition B (the 1998 Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative), now finds itself -- environmentally speaking -- called out on strikes.

But there is an equally important test of the supervisors' "good faith efforts" and smart growth fidelity ahead: General Plan 2020. Due to be adopted soon by the Board of Supervisors, GP 2020 sets land-use priorities and restrictions for the next 20 years. The challenge facing the supervisors is to hold off on approving any interim construction that might conflict with the new plan by declaring a moratorium on all such new development until GP 2020 is adopted.

The reasons why a moratorium is necessary are the hundreds of "vested" commercial and residential projects already in the planning pipeline that stand a good chance of being approved whether or not they conform to GP 2020. These projects, which would litter the backcountry with big box retail stores, supermarkets and housing tracts, only continue the pattern of urban sprawl while undermining any smart growth principles contained in GP 2020. The impact of these projects on our county's natural resources would be devastating.

California Government Code section 65858 authorizes city or county government to suspend the issuance of building permits while it is in the process of updating its general plan. Such an interim ordinance, adopted recently by local governments in Tiburon, San Juan Capistrano and Sutter and Orange counties, is intended only to prevent conflicts between new development entitlements based on current land use plans and contemplated changes to those plans. In effect, a moratorium would suspend the planned destruction of our backcountry and allow public input to secure, in the words of the ordinance, "the public health, safety and welfare."

By imposing a moratorium, the county may begin to address the infrastructural problems related to new, recently approved developments as it formulates strategies to deal with the countywide problems of sewage spills, beach pollution, traffic congestion and water and power distribution. To encourage the Board of Supervisors to make the necessary findings pursuant to such an ordinance, Save Our Forest and Ranchlands has invited local planning and sponsor groups to call on the supervisors to suspend the issuance of permits until GP 2020 is adopted.

In light of the court order to "reasonably assess" the environmental impacts of GPA 96-03 before any such plan is legally adopted, we would ask that the Board of Supervisors also apply Judge McConnell's logic to GP 2020. With no valid reason not to introduce a building moratorium and ample legal precedent to do so, it is the only way to protect what we've got before it's gone and a way for the county to prove to the public it knows something about smart growth after all.

Bell is vice president of Save Our Forest and Ranchlands.

Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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