The Big Environmental Decision Facing the County

Politics

The Big Environmental Decision Facing the County

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is set to discuss one of the biggest environmental decisions it’s likely to face in the coming years.

The proposed site of Lilac Hills Ranch, a housing development in the unincorporated county rejected by voters in 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

This post originally appeared in the Sept. 11 Politics Report. Subscribe to the Politics Report here.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is set to discuss Wednesday one of the biggest environmental decisions it’s likely to face in the coming years.

Faced with implementing a state law that’s already in effect, the county needs to decide how it will deal with the contribution that new development makes to carbon emissions.

But while the county grapples with how to comply with the state law — as the city of San Diego did last year, though facing an easier task because it doesn’t have to regulate development in expansive backcountry areas — it’s also facing a lawsuit filed last year by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which argues that a set of principles the county adopted to help it shape its new development regulations violates the new state law and California’s landmark environmental law, CEQA. That trial is set to begin this fall. And a coalition of business, development and housing groups has formed to urge the county to pursue a more dovish posture on the new regulation, though it’s unclear if that’s even an option, based on recent guidance from the state’s planning department.

In the middle of all this is the Board of Supervisors, where it’s unclear whether the Democrats, and their 3-2 advantage, share a common aim.

The issue is over SB 743, legislation passed in 2013 that said local governments should no longer analyze how developments affect transportation based on how much they slow traffic — a measure called “level of service,” or LOS — but by how much overall driving (and therefore environmental damage) the traffic is likely to cause. That standard is called “vehicle miles traveled,” or VMT.

The county’s fight is over how, specifically, to measure VMT. In explicit guidance provided on an FAQ from the state department of planning’s website, the state said that counties should compare the per person vehicle miles traveled created by a new project to the vehicle miles traveled by an average person in the entire county. Projects that come in comfortably below that countywide average would be considered VMT efficient and would have a much easier time getting approved. Projects comfortably above that threshold could find it nearly impossible to get approved.

In practice, the VMT efficient areas are basically those along the western edge of the unincorporated county area, nearest to the existing cities, or in parts of the county planned to be villages, like Alpine and Ramona.

Business and development groups, meanwhile, have been pushing the county to adopt a threshold that will be easier for housing projects in the unincorporated county to meet — one that compares projects instead to the average VMT of a person who lives in the unincorporated county, not the whole county.

That’s become a more difficult ask now that the state has said, about as explicitly as it can, that the law calls for a countywide average.

Yet the county is also facing pressure from the environmental groups suing it who may want an even more rigorous standard than the one proposed by the state.

Earlier this year, the board effectively punted the measure when it asked county staff to study a series of 13 questions on the decision and to come back in January 2022 with answers when it could make a decision.

But now, on Wednesday, county staff is asking the board to rescind a previous decision to use a document as it wrote its final policy that relied on the average VMT of just the unincorporated county — before coming back in January to make further decisions. It’s not at all clear, though, that there are three votes available to make that decision.

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