From One Paseo to Lilac Hills Ranch to Stone Creek, residents of San Diego County are watching as an epic political struggle between developers and communities rages on.

The problem facing communities in San Diego County is we are running up against a natural limit: There is only so much developable land. The first of these limits is obvious. You cannot set up a factory and churn out more land to meet an increase in demand. Other limits, such as water, also intrude. By necessity, this means that at some point development has to proceed up instead of out. Planners call this infill development, and generally orient it along transit corridors. This kind of development means greater population densities, which creates a whole new set of challenges.

One Paseo, Lilac Hills and Stone Creek

Each of these three projects presents examples of these challenges.

With One Paseo, the densities were well beyond what was called for in the outdated Carmel Valley community plan. The planning board in Carmel Valley said it was amenable to more density, just not the level demanded by the developer. One of the sticking points was the absence of public transit – belying the claim that it was an example of smart growth. The very public spat, which was ultimately won by the community, revolved around density and transit.

The current dispute over the Lilac Hills development southeast of Escondido is an example of building out as opposed to up. One of the main concerns is the inability of the local fire district to respond in the required time. Given the location, if response times don’t meet the standard, the risk of a structure fire causing a larger wildfire is high.

In Mira Mesa, the last undeveloped land in the community is now being mined by two major materials companies. The larger of two future projects, Stone Creek, is slated to go before the Planning Commission and City Council soon. Both land owners have enjoyed positive relations with the community over the years, but that’s being strained by the city’s failure to keep its community plans up to date. (The same underlying problem afflicted One Paseo.)


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

The city’s general plan stipulates an algorithm for calculating park acreage in a community based on its projected population growth. A community plan then implements these calculations by identifying where in the community the acreage should be set aside. Both the general plan and each community plan are policy documents that are supposed to bind city government to predictable practices. This is crucial for businesses and the communities in which they operate, as it helps provide a commonly understood foundation for important decisions. With the migration toward infill development, these policies are more important than ever.

Pro-Business vs. Pro-Rent Seeker

Understanding the issues and what to expect of our elected leaders requires that we wrap our heads around two related ideas: how developers’ interests overlap government interests; and the difference between creating wealth and seeking “economic rents.”

Businesses can pin their success on substantially improving products and services in the economy. If their products or services are measurably better than their competitors’, the value of those improvements is new wealth. But if a business pins its profits on using political clout to persuade elected officials to look the other way while policies are ignored or changed to their advantage, the profits enjoyed are considered “economic rents” as opposed to the creation of real wealth.

This is the problem we face: Our elected leaders are giving in too easily to rent-seeking, especially on the part of developers. At this point the problem is more acute among the San Diego City Council (I actually wonder if they know the difference between new wealth and economic rent) than the County Board of Supervisors.

In their pursuit of these economic rents, developers will appeal to elected officials’ budget concerns. If you take a single footprint of land at 100 feet by 100 feet, you have 10,000 square feet of land. Now, if that parcel is “entitled” for a one-story building, the land owner will only be able sell 10,000 square feet of developable land. Increase that entitlement to 10 stories; and you have 100,000 square feet of developable land. It is a bit of an oversimplification, but that parcel is 10 times more valuable when entitled at 10 stories than at one. When a developer sells land to a builder, they are not just selling the land; they are selling the land with its entitlements. The more aggressively entitled the land is, the higher price it will command.

Tax revenue is also tied to these entitlements. A property entitled for 10 stories is more valuable than a property entitled for one story, and generates more tax revenue. If the space is used for commercial activity, this more intensive use will generate more sales tax revenue. Budget analysts look at how land is zoned and entitled, and then apply statistical models to predict tax revenue. Thus, more aggressive entitlements are both in the profit interests of developers and the budget interests of elected officials.

Which is another way of saying the deck is heavily stacked against the rest of us.

This is why we have a general plan and community plans. These policy tools allow us to offset the coinciding interests of developers and government so we do not end up spending more hours in traffic than we have to, our kids have schools to attend and parks to play at and public safety officers can respond to emergencies in a timely fashion. When rent-seeking is allowed to swallow up policy whole, we are creating an intolerable and dangerous future for ourselves and our children.

Responding to the Challenge

Avoid the temptation to mindlessly demonize developers.

Past city leadership has failed us in Mira Mesa by failing to budget for a community plan update or ignoring what’s in the plan when it is inconvenient for developers. We succeeded in defending the Carmel Valley community through strong, clear and consistent advocacy with the City Council, not by demonizing developers and development.

Here’s how people can participate in that kind of advocacy:

Show up. Then show up again. Then show up some more. We are getting to the point of largely being built out. We live in a desert. We have had two major wildfires in the past 10 years. The stakes are simply too high to allow rent-seeking to go unopposed. It is entirely possible to be pro-business and anti-rent seeking. To be pro-business is to demand that our government streamline its processes and keep fees low to allow small business to innovate and improve things –to create real wealth and new jobs. To oppose rent-seeking is to demand that policies spelled out in the general plan and community plans actually be followed.

Participate in community planning. Our county and city planning groups (sometimes called planning boards) are where these plans are developed. There is probably no better place to get a sense of what is happening in your community today and what will happen in the future than the local planning group. These groups are quasi-governmental in the sense that they are called out in things like the municipal charter, so they have to operate in a somewhat formal fashion. They might seem a bit officious at first glance. But the formalities actually ensure everyone gets a fair hearing.

Vote – and then pay attention. Developers can make campaign contributions. But – believe it or not – this will not overcome persistent, effectively organized civic advocacy by a public committed to voting and paying attention to what those elected do in office. The single greatest ally to rent-seeking corporations is a disengaged public that neither votes nor pays attention.

John H. Horst is chairman of the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group.

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Lilac Hills Ranch, Must Reads, Opinion

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    16 comments
    Walter Chambers
    Walter Chambers subscribermember

    I disagree that the "deck is heavily stacked against the rest of us." Unfortunately, the suburban form of development we've seen since the 1950's is unsustainable, and has left "the rest of us" holding the debt of the generations before us. Now we can't pay to maintain the sprawling infrastructure, we are choking on car traffic, and are desperate to find ways to save a ruined environment. 


    Traditional city development is able to balance public investment with the return on that investment - economically, socially, and culturally. With less car-dependent sprawl, we are able to afford and maintain better infrastructure, and build transit and parks ... and perhaps even have lower taxes. Developers want a good ROI, The City wants a good ROI, and we taxpayers should DEMAD a good ROI. If we play our hand right, instead of fighting the game, we all win. If we continue fighting, we lose, and our children will pay the price.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    Until the local community plans are given real teeth by codifying them in the Municipal Code and made a review requirement by the DSD, the plans will be ineffective and ignored.  The Planning Commission ignored the denials of five cummunity planning groups for One Paseo.  That really tells the story.  No accountability.

    John Horst
    John Horst

    @Geoff Page Or until politicians begin losing their jobs by allowing these plans to be disregarded...

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    When the City Council adopts a Community Development Plan and it is referenced in the Municipal Code one would think that would be enough to adequately regulate development in our city, and it would be if San Diego's Development Services would simply follow the law as written. But no, Director Robert A Vacchi is running Development Services as if he were the sole arbiter of what's good for San Diego. The Municipal Code means nothing to the man holding the power to accept or deny an application for a use permit. He accepts what he likes, denies what he doesn't, and justifies his actions with deceit.

    I am currently being forced from my North Park home of 15 years by nasty odor, crowd noise, and the roar of machinery generated by the new illegally permitted industrial use next door. I contacted Development Services and asked them to at least apply the remedies detailed in the Municipal Code for these kinds of disturbances. They will not. Director ( Il Duce) Vaachi  has approved the use (albeit illegally) and now refuses to regulate it's operation.

    Developers are in business to make a buck. They can not be blamed for pushing every lawful button available in order to make that happen. San Diego Development Services is a government department mandated to enforce the zoning and building sections of the Municipal Code for the benefit of San Diego citizens. Director Robert A Vacchi can be blamed, and should be fired and jailed for gross malfeasance in carrying out those duties. 

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Richard Gardiol Richard, I have to correct your comment about community plans being codified by the Municipal Code.  This is exactly the problem, the community plans are not codified by the Municipal Code, which is why the city ignores them with impunity whenever they want to.  The Development Services Department plan reviewers will tell you they do not consider community plans when reviewing projects.  They will tell you that is the job of the community planning groups.  If a project is legal under the MC, that is all they care about.


    As for Mr. Vacchi.  He started with the city years ago, went to law school, went to work for an aggressive land development law firm downtown for years then returned to the city, first as head of code enforcement then to head DSD.  It is a really sorry saga.  But, DSD has been a sorry organization for many years.  Just look at the name Development Services Department, that says it all.

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    @Geoff Page @Richard Gardiol Thank you for the correction; codified has been changed to referenced.

    Mr. Vacchi was appointed Director by his ardent supporter interim Mayor Todd Gloria.

    Plan reviewers and code enforcement investigators are far more dedicated to pleasing their boss than any fidelity to the Municipal Code.


    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Richard Gardiol @Geoff Page Richard, For some reason I have a much longer reply from you when I accessed your comment on gmail than what appears here.  I wonder if it was censored or if there is a technical glitch.  

    Yes, Todd Gloria appointed Vacchi and I tried to get a decent answer from Gloria but after four emails all I got was a boilerplate response.  Mr. Gloria sank considerably in my opinion.


    I have had several experiences with Vacchi so our opinions match on that subject.

    John Horst
    John Horst

    @Richard Gardiol All on this thread... The General Plan and Community Plans are policy, which is a step below ordinance (law).  But the Muni Code stipulates that the "decision-maker" - which is either staff (Process II), Planning Commission (Process III) or the City Council (Process IV) - has to "find" that the project does not "adversely affect" the pertinent adopted land use plan.  THAT, is Muni Code and ultimately I think the City may need to be challenged in court as to the legitimacy of the decision-makers "findings" when awarding permits.

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    @Geoff Page @Richard Gardiol  Thank You Mr. Page for your efforts. Mr. Gloria doesn't give a hoot about what we think.

    The censorship was mine and I thank VOSD for providing a way to edit out my harsher remarks.

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    @John Horst @Richard Gardiol  Thank you for your interest. In my case the non conforming industrial use required a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) in order to be permitted in my zone CL-2.  I believe a CUP requires a Process III evaluation that includes a written notice to the neighborhood, a hearing on objections, and a process for appeal.

    Director Vacchi decided to ignore the law when he downgraded from a level III Process to a level I. That's right, the same review process required to change the water heater in your home was used to evaluate a request for permission to develop a heavy ( due to annoying noise and odor) industrial use literally next door to 13 homes.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    TL;DR: chairman of a planning group supports planning. News at 11.

    In Japan, a developer who wants to build a tall building pays the neighbors who would be deprived of sunshine so that both the developer and the neighbors are happy. In the USA, we're a bit clumsier. Well, a lot clumsier, actually--we simply ban tall buildings and call it good, like using a cannon to kill a fly. Isn't central planning great?

    Or the developer ignores the people in the building's shadow (who are the greatest opponents) and lobbies only to the fence sitters on the other side of town to support the project, hoping to get the majority to support the project in spite of those who it would truly hurt. Because if the majority votes for it, that makes it okay, and "tyranny of the masses" doesn't exist, right?

    Ryan with Cupcake
    Ryan with Cupcake subscriber

    Why not increase the entitlements across the board? That would allow San Diego to meet its increasing demand for housing without needing to be a rich developer building a large project to overcome the barriers to new building.

    tomp
    tomp subscriber

    @Ryan with Cupcake Because if you increase entitlements you _need_ to increase infrastructure, too : roads to support more traffic, public transportation, parks, schools, water, sewer, etc..  You can't increase property taxes to pay for the infrastructure.  The city & county need to make a developer provide for the infrastructure as part of the development.  Mello-Roos districts have issues (including taxing per parcel not on parcel value), but only work for infrastructure in large enough new developments that can start with Mello-Roos.  Conversely, smaller infill development in locations where sufficient infrastructure exists (including transportation) is "smart growth", but it is less profitable, and meets objections from local neighbors (c.f. Morena Dr. along the expanding trolley).  


    I'd appreciate VoSD doing a comparison with how Chula Vista is handling future development, where they've already entitled huge areas.  Does that prevent or reduce rent-seeking?  Does that get the infrastructure built and paid for?  Does it have other drawbacks?

    John Horst
    John Horst

    @Ryan with Cupcake The idea is that increased entitlements be along transit corridors (Tomp's infrastructure).  We've heard a lot of angst over the apartments along I-15 and Mira Mesa Blvd (Casa Mira View).  But that density was programmed into the Community Plan because we knew that the Direct Access Ramps to the HOV lanes were coming as well as the Miramar College  Transit Center.  The fact that these things were built together is how things should be done.  And the owner of CMV came to us in the Planning Group before he went to the City, so by the time the project got to us formally, we already knew what would be in it.  I told Mark Kersey at the grand opening that the CMV approach was how things should be done.

    John Horst
    John Horst

    @tomp @Ryan with Cupcake First, I wonder if CV has "entitled" the land or if they have "zoned" it for high densiities.  Entitlements usually come together with a specific plan.  The idea is to zone for the densities, have those zones incorporated into a Community Plan, and then have a project presented which is consistent with that plan.  Then come the entitlements.


    San Diego "claims" this is how it is done.  In practice, it is backwards.  The plan is submitted, and then the zones and community plan are changed to make them consistent with the plan.  CLASSIC rent-seeking!


    This whole fight is about getting the City Council to follow their own policies and manuals.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @John Horst The Casa Mira View project is the worst form of high density housing I've seen in San Diego.  It's still totally auto focused with all of the housing surrounding giant parking structures.  There's no quality higher density housing anywhere in the world that makes a 5-story parking structures with the footprint of a football field the centerpiece of the community.  Quality higher density development would have a mix of uses which would allow for greater use of walking and less use of autos to reach necessary services.  The whole area around Casa Mira View is totally auto focused with giant parking lots and wide, high-speed roads.  It's hardly a friendly environment for people that want to bike or walk to reach services in the area or the Miramar Transit Center.