Transit advocates hoped a new policy the regional planning agency SANDAG has been working on since 2013 would compel or at least entice cities to plan for more homes and jobs around public transit stops.

The plan’s set to go before SANDAG’s board later this month, and transit advocates have been left wanting more.

The document going forward is essentially a handbook for how cities should handle transit-focused planning. Back when SANDAG agreed to draw it up in 2011, the hope was for the plan to at least provide financial incentives for cities that pursued dense development near transit stations, even if it SANDAG can’t actually force cities to promote that type of planning.

It’s yet another example of the difference between laying out aspirations – as San Diego County and the city of San Diego have both done in long-term growth plans – and ensuring those goals come to fruition.

One of the groups that wanted SANDAG to develop the Regional Transit Oriented Development Strategy transit advocate Circulate San Diego, said the agency misled them. SANDAG agreed to write the policy in 2011 as a condition for transit groups supporting the agency’s long-term transportation plan.

SANDAG representatives said they’re simply respecting their role in the planning process, which gives individual cities autonomy on land use and planning decisions. A much more forceful plan that would have compelled cities to plan for smart growth – like one that’s been adopted in the Bay Area – would have to be embraced by politicians who lead SANDAG.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The plan is going before two SANDAG committees this week and the entire board before the end of the month. It’ll then become part of the agency’s new long-term transportation plan, which needs to be approved this fall.

Circulate San Diego wrote two recent letters to the agency challenging it to use the plan as an opportunity to encourage cities to build transit-friendly developments, rather than just give them a list of principles and ideas.

The organization is concerned SANDAG wrote the new strategy in bad faith.

One of the reasons the organizations that later merged to become Circulate had agreed to support the 2011 plan in the first place was because of the promise it would produce action.

“SANDAG’s draft ‘TOD Strategy’ contains no actual policy changes,” wrote Colin Parent, the organization’s policy counsel, in a letter to SANDAG. “Instead, the document outlines only areas of policy that SANDAG proposes to ‘continue,’ and areas of potential policy updates that SANDAG proposes to ‘consider’ at unspecified future times.”

At a subsequent meeting of a group convened to discuss the plan, Del Mar’s planning director, Kathleen Garcia, echoed some of Parent’s concerns. The words “consider” and “continue” made it seem everything was fine, she said, instead of instilling urgency for new development near transit.

A new draft struck those words from the plan’s 13 recommended strategies. The new version includes the same suggestions, but with different verbs.

Transit advocates had hoped a new policy by SANDAG would have more tee.

“My concern was that it was important to recognize that we were doing some things that were good and on the right track, but we also should have a step up from that,” Garcia said.

At that meeting, Ed Batchelder, planning director for Chula Vista, also asked that the policy establish a criteria to evaluate how primed different areas are for transit-focused projects.

That’s been added to the most recent draft of the plan among a list of eight “early actions” for the agency to pursue once the plan’s adopted. But, again, they’re mostly soft directives, like one that says SANDAG should “consider” focusing capital improvement spending in districts developing in a transit-friendly way.

Parent acknowledged that the policy is moving in the right direction, but said there’s room for SANDAG to do more.

He’d like to see the plan increase the amount of money SANDAG can give to cities to help them rewrite plans that would allow for more dense development near transit.

Since his proposal would mean encouraging cities to pursue these transit-focused projects – rather than mandating it – it wouldn’t overstep SANDAG’s authority, Parent said.

“SANDAG can help cities make the decisions that the cities themselves want to make,” Parent said. “But the cities need help to make those projects a reality. SANDAG can empower cities, without imposing on them.”

Cities have run into trouble recently when it comes to coordinating their development regulations with regional transit investments.

In Bay Park, for instance, San Diego last year tried to increase the number of homes and the height of buildings developers could build near two new stations on the planned trolley extension from Old Town to University City.

But nearby residents organized quickly and forcefully against the proposal, and the city has abandoned it entirely. Meanwhile, the trolley extension is still proposed, and the new stations will go in without major increases to allowed development in the area.

Charles Stoll, director of land use and transportation planning for SANDAG, said the new principles and criteria defined in the plan could eventually be incorporated into existing agency programs that give cities grant money to plan for transit-related growth and active transportation projects.

Actually making the plan’s principles part of those decisions, however, would take an additional vote of SANDAG’s board at some point in the future.

“Next time we use those grant programs, can we do something with this criteria to better reward projects doing these things,” Stoll said. “We are trying to be respectful of land-use authorities and their responsibilities.”

When it’s all finished, SANDAG will have spent $444,809 writing the new strategy for transit-focused development. AECOM, a large land-use consultant in town that’s also preparing an environmental report for the city’s attempts to build a new football stadium, has a contract for $304,346 as the primary consultant on the project.

The Bay Area’s regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee, has taken a more heavy-handed approach. Its policy to encourage transit-oriented development establishes specific thresholds for housing that either exists or is allowed to be developed that an area has to meet if it’s to receive certain types of transit investment.

Stoll said a policy like that would be a departure from the agency’s current approach, and would need to come from the board.

“That’s not something we’ve ever considered in our region,” he said. “Looking at ways to encourage land-use around transit is the way we’re trying to focus our efforts.”

    This article relates to: Land Use, Must Reads, Regional Planning, Transit

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    With the egg now of my face, about numbers, it's more like one trolley peanut out o 100. Still an minor basis for transportation growth and community plans disruption.


    Dave P.
    Dave P. subscriber

    What is Circulate San Diego's position of Lilac Hills Ranch?

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    The  only reason this dialogue doesn't head "Cyber Jokes", or" what difference does it make", is sadly the $40 Billion in San Diego Forward to build mass transit.

    Can't this group of activists, lawyers, analysts, etc, read numbers and recognize the tempest in a small teapot?

    Line up about 200 peanuts and one will represent the trolley's share of passenger-mile travel. Concerning the Grantville dust up over living near trolleys, the trolley travel share is equivalent to one car entering the streets every minute. Triple near zero is still near zero.

    Reducing auto fuel use a fraction of on mpg saves more fuel than the whole mass transit system uses.

    Is Transit Oriented Development forcing location of residences other than most logical, and productive very smart?

    Count 200 cars going by, All the land and tracks and buildings clustered nearby would replace one car with inconvenient service taking twice the time.

    On-call pick up service is expanding at about new mass  transit real cost.

    Its use would allow local decisions about residence and job location

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Walt Brewer That's a great observation about how reducing auto fuel use would save more fuel than increasing mass transit use. Let's convert all our freeway lanes to express lanes so nobody has to sit in freeway traffic ever again. That would save a lot of fuel, and also save a lot of tax money because when traffic is permanently eliminated, we would no longer need to spend money widening freeway lanes just to eliminate traffic.

    richard cardullo
    richard cardullo

    We have a Balkanized planning system here in San Diego county.  There are 18 separate city governments and 50 planning groups in San Diego City, all with their own appetites and desires concerning their OWN areas.  Only a state law requiring that any local zoning law be weighted against its affect on the region before it becomes law will solve this problem.

    I knew that some will claim that this takes power away from the locals, but when you have a dysfunctional system like we have here in SD county, what else are we going to do:  wait until our freeways are unusable, our air polluted, and air temperatures unsupportable?    

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "Nobody drives on that freeway anymore. It's too crowded." --Yogi Berra

    CAPRSDOC subscriber

    Good to hear SANDAG is not entirely removing local jurisdiction authority. If they were to dictate land use like they've done in the Bay area, they would be squashing self-government and upholding regional governance or governance by an administrative state...governance by stakeholders (govt. agencies, favored corporations, and selected NGOs) leaving the citizen stakeholder out in the cold. 

    "The Bay Area’s regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee, has taken a more heavy-handed approach. Its policy to encourage transit-oriented development establishes specific thresholds for housing that either exists or is allowed to be developed that an area has to meet if it’s to receive certain types of transit investment."

    ABAG and MTC failed to reach a large percentage of SF citizen stakeholders reaching less than 1% of 7 million inhabitants for public comment. Without proper consensus by the public, they pushed their agenda through anyway.

    richard cardullo
    richard cardullo


    The decision whether or not to put high density near mass transit should not be put up for vote or need approval from the majority (the majority don't vote in any election).  Most, if not all, of the city of San Diego's 50 planning group members are probably  elected by only 5 or 10 votes, but they claim to speak for their neighborhood which may contain 30 to 40 thousand people.

    Climate changes is real and apparent and solutions to addressing this problem are too important to be left NIMBYism. 

    Jay Armenio
    Jay Armenio

    A policy that mandates specific thresholds for housing that an area has to meet in order to receive certain types of transit investment is just common sense. Building densely around trolley stops encourages their use, which discourages other forms of transportation for these residents. 

    I have to laugh when I hear people get excited about the trolley extension, but angry that they should have to change their community so other people can make use of it. 

    The population trajectory for this area will require either building new developments out farther or to a greater density in existing areas. San Diego will be urbanized eventually. 

    I fully understand and support resisting raising the height of buildings in Bay Park. This takes away from peoples views, and being connected to the water is one of the best things about San Diego and costal living in general. 

    Density however is not something I have an issue with, so long as it is planned well. 

    I would have no problem seeing Morena Blvd turn into a more walkable area with densely populated are with commercial/residential mixed use buildings. 

    Take that 2 mile strip along Morena and rezone it for denser development along the trolley line, decrease/remove minimum parking requirements to encourage density, trolley use, and not vehicle use. 

    In essence turn it into a strip of San Fransisco style retail/tourist area. It would be good for our local economy. High density smart growth area's make sense to me. 

    It seems to me that we face either implementing smart growth, encourage "bungalowing", building out farther suburbs Phoenix style, or just putting up a full occupancy sign up and telling people that want to move to San Diego to keep on trucking.

    I for one am not hearing a lot of practical solutions from most angry residents. 

    What are your views on how we handle future development? 

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    It reflects the tension between a board charged with regional planning which is comprised of city council members whose electoral interests are most decidedly NOT served by smart growth (unless it is smart growth in the OTHER guys City).  Until this tension is resolved (option A, directly elect the executive board) Andrew has long-term employment security writing about this topic.

    Jack Shu
    Jack Shu subscriber

    SANDAG actually is not acting in good faith from an even earlier RTP.  From their 2007 RPT, Save our Forest and Ranchlands and SANDAG agreed to a 2008 settlement in which they were to do a better job considering transit first options in their 2011 RTP.  Then for their 2011 RTP a Superior Court ruled that the Board "abused their discretion."  After they appeal that decision, the Appellate Court wrote five times on different issues that SANDAG "miss lead and miss informed" the public and its members.  Unless our elected officials change how SANDAG should operate, it should be hard for anyone to think they are doing the best they can to serve our region's current and future needs.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    That's funny. SANDAG just built a new, zero-density parking lot at the Sorrento Valley Coaster station, and now they want other developers to do the opposite (build high density instead of low/zero density). How's that for "do as I say, not as I do"?