When County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher appeared on the VOSD Podcast in October, he said he opposes Measure A, the March 2020 ballot initiative that would require voters to sign off on housing developments that don’t comply with the county’s general plan.
That same month, Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz, who’s been endorsed by Fletcher in her bid to join him on the Board of Supervisors, said she supports the measure. A similar policy in Escondido has worked out well for the city, she argued. (Opponents say Escondido has been woefully behind on hitting its housing goals.)
That two close allies from the same party land on opposite sides of the so-called Safeguard Our Countryside San Diego, or SOS, measure, is par for the course for what’s become a controversial proposal that’s racked up strange bedfellows on both sides.
Another measure on the March ballot offers a glimpse at the type of decisions voters would be asked to make more of if SOS were to pass. It’s a referendum on the Board of Supervisors’ decision to OK a housing development called Newland Sierra, which, you guessed it, doesn’t comply with the county’s general plan.
Both proposals will help determine how the county will approach major housing decisions going forward. So, let’s clear up any confusion between them and highlight what’s actually at stake with both measures.
The County General Plan
To understand what SOS and the Newland Sierra measure are trying to do, you have to understand the county’s existing general plan.
San Diego County’s general plan is a framework that guides land use and development decisions across the region.
The plan, approved in 2011, took 13 years and more than $18 million to develop. It set the land zones and outlined where housing should go and where it shouldn’t. The plan reduced housing capacity by 15 percent while shifting where that development would occur from far-flung eastern, backcountry areas to western communities closer to existing development, transportation infrastructure and jobs.
The purpose of the change was to “reflect the county’s commitment to a sustainable growth model that facilitates efficient development near infrastructure and services, while respecting sensitive natural resources and protection of existing community character in its extensive rural and semi‐rural communities,” the plan reads.
Yet developers regularly ask for permission to build projects that don’t comply with the general plan. Decisions about whether to OK projects seeking special permission to amend the plan have to go to the County Board of Supervisors.
Which brings us to …
Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside
Safeguard our San Diego Countryside is a proposal on the March 2020 ballot that would require San Diego voters countywide to approve general plan amendments that increase residential density in semi-rural and rural areas by six or more units. It will be Measure A on the ballot.
Stakeholders on both sides of the measure seem to agree on one fundamental fact: that San Diego is in the midst of a housing crisis. But they differ on whether SOS would make the problem better or worse.
The current ballot language: “Shall this initiative be adopted for the purpose of amending the San Diego County General Plan to require voter approval for General Plan amendments that increase residential density for property designated by the General Plan as Semi-Rural or Rural?”
The case for it: Some people want to stop suburban sprawl. Mark Jackson and JP Theberge, two of the measure’s proponents, argue that voters should have the power to approve any general plan amendment that exceeds six housing units.
Jackson said the county’s general plan is the blueprint for how the county’s housing plan needs to grow – so deviating from that blueprint should require countywide buy-in. He said the initiative does not change anyone’s land use entitlements, and the intent is to give small family landowners a break.
“This measure only applies to general plan amendments. There’s no plan to provide infrastructure for these areas for general plan amendments,” he said. “So Yes on SOS gives voters a voice in few critical land use decisions when the general plan is changed.”
Jackson said politicians come and go, and that voters should have the control to decide amendments to the general plan. He said he is concerned that the current Board of Supervisors approves general plan amendments pursued by developers for projects located far from where current infrastructure is – against the county’s goals to shift growth to areas that have the infrastructure to support it.
Theberge, executive director of Grow the San Diego Way, an organization that provides data and analysis on housing issues in San Diego County, said the measure is only a threat to developers that don’t want to follow the general plan and build sprawl.
He said that when the board approves amendments to the plan, “it’s disrespecting the general public.”
Diaz, who’s running for county supervisor, said at VOSD’s Politifest in October that a similar measure in Escondido has worked well.
“I’m in a strong position to explain to folks that it’s not the end of the world if it passes,” she said.
She said that people shouldn’t distrust the County Board of Supervisors, but that distrust is a symptom of what is causing something like SOS to be placed on the ballot by residents.
Other current and former elected officials who support the measure include former County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, Planning Commission Chair Phillip Pryde, Oceanside City Councilwoman Esther Sanchez, San Marcos Councilman Randy Walton and Del Mar Councilman Dwight Warden. It is also supported the San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, the San Diego Sierra Club, the Climate Action Campaign, the San Diego League of Women Voters and others.
The case against it: Opponents claim that if you make it harder to build homes outside of city limits, more people will look for housing even farther away – like in southwestern Riverside County. And that would further exacerbate traffic and the problems supporters of the measure are trying to stop. The lead opponents of SOS say the measure will prevent anyone who wants to build more than six units to have to go to a general vote at a major financial cost.
Tanya Castaneda, a public relations professional and spokeswoman for the opposition to SOS, said requiring anyone who wants to add even six homes to obtain countywide voter approval would be a “nightmare” for affordable housing and market-rate housing. She called SOS a NIMBY measure and expressed concerns it could stifle housing growth near Interstate 15.
“It’s a misnomer to say it’s about the backcountry because the area at issue is nobody wants to build in the backcountry,” she said. “It’s about the I-15. It’s about the area along the 15 where developers really want to build. … That’s where we’ve seen growth.”
She and other SOS opponents say that by limiting growth in unincorporated areas, the measure would increase the burden to build housing facing local cities.
“So if you’re talking about each one doing their share, the county can’t do its share and that’s more burden on the cities,” she said.
Castaneda said she would dispute that a similar initiative worked well in Escondido, calling it the “definition of a no-growth city.” Escondido, she pointed out, is 14th out of 19 if you rank cities by what percentage of their housing target has been met over the last 10 years.
Others have expressed different reasons for opposing the measure. Fletcher, for example, said he agrees with the measure’s goals but not its means.
“At the end of the day we get elected to make these decisions,” he said on the VOSD Podcast. “And so I think if we want to have a world where every land use decision goes to a vote of the public then you don’t need us to be there to make those. And so generally I’m not a fan of that approach philosophically.”
Fletcher is a Democrat, but many of the other high-profile opponents of SOS are Republicans, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones and former San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn. The measure is also opposed by the San Diego Housing Federation and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and others.
Better Choice Newland Sierra Development
Better Choice would allow for the creation of Newland Sierra, a community that developers say will create house 2,135 homes, a school site, retail and parks north of Escondido in the Merriam Mountains.
The Board of Supervisors approved a general plan amendment to allow the Newland Sierra project in September 2018, but more than 117,000 county residents signed a petition to force the decision to a countywide vote. That effort was bankrolled by the Golden Door luxury spa, the project’s main opponent.
The current ballot language: “Shall San Diego County General Plan Amendment PDS2015-GPA-15-00l approved by the Board of Supervisors for the development of the Newland Sierra Project, be approved? The existing General Plan allows 99 homes and up to 2 million square feet of commercial with open space. General Plan Amendment PDSS2015-GPA-15-001 would authorize up to 2,199 homes and 1,777,684 square feet of commercial. The approved Newland Sierra Project includes a planned community of 2,135 homes, a school site, 81,000 square feet of retail, 36 acres of parks and 1,209 acres of open space.”
The case for it: Rita Brandin, president of Newland Sierra, and Kenneth Moore, the spokesman for the project and a senior public affairs manager at Southwest Strategies, said the Better Choice measure provides San Diego County residents with a “better choice” for the development of private property they say will be developed one way or the other.
Brandin said 60 percent of the homes in the project will be affordably priced for working families.
“So when you hear the vernacular ‘better choice’ as we are going through our communications on our campaign, it is a better choice for us to propose homes, which is one of the most important demands in our market today all over the county,” Brandin said. “Not just infill, not just urban, but all over the county, different types of homes and for broader buyers.”
She said those homes will be for people who’ve “gotten to a life stage who have a desire because they have a family – whatever that family formation is – they have a family and they want to be in an environment that has parks, that has active recreation, that has amenities.”
Moore said the project will create working-class housing in the region.
Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara and San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones recently joined Vista Mayor Judy Ritter, Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall and Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss in expressing support for the measure at a press conference. “As mayors of the five cities along the 78 Corridor, which are comprised of nearly 645,000 residents and more than 283,000 jobs, we wholeheartedly endorse the Better Choice Measure,” they wrote in a letter . “The Better Choice Measure provides all San Diegans a better choice for the development of private land located right in our backyard to not only benefit the neighboring cities in North County but all of San Diego County.”
The case against it: Opponents of the controversial project, like Williams, an attorney for the Golden Door, and Duncan McFetridge, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, said it will determine whether the county plans to pursue smart growth or sprawl.
They also say that there’s nothing in the measure requiring Newland Sierra to include affordable housing, despite assurances from the developer that it will.
The Golden Door’s general manager, Kathy Van Ness, told VOSD in 2017  that Newland and other projects like it will tear up rural San Diego County.
“The Golden Door dies, and this’ll be a housing development, too,” she said.
Williams said the ballot measure goes beyond just the development itself. It “presents a ‘canary in coal mine’ debate right now. ‘Are we going to have smart growth and grow the way SANDAG and the county general plan have said we should grow – which is to basically do infill – or are we going to sprawl?’” he said.
McFetridge said the project would have major environmental impacts and called it “the worst of all solutions.”
He said though there is a housing crisis, the county will be building in the wrong place if the measure passes.
“(Newland Sierra) is using the argument that Golden Door just doesn’t want to develop, but the fact is we’ve been fighting against it for 20 years … There’s an unbelievable amount of money involved and the climate change impacts are going to be enormous,” McFetridge said.
The project is opposed by the San Diego Sierra Club, the San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, and other environmental groups across the region.