Voters Decided They Hate Sprawl — and Voting on it - Voice of San Diego

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Voters Decided They Hate Sprawl — and Voting on it

Voters seem to have sent one message in two parts: They don’t like sprawl development. They’re going to vote against it every chance they get, it appears. But they also don’t want to have to vote against it. This isn’t their job.

The Newland Sierra property bounded by I-15 on the east, Deer Springs Road on the south. / Photo by Megan Wood

For several months before I took a full-time job with Voice of San Diego 15 years ago, I lived in South Carolina, with my wife, Ashley, who was attending Nuclear Power School with the Navy. We lived in an apartment complex next to a vast, swampy forest.

Ashley studied from the moment she woke up to the moment she went to bed, all of it classified so all of it away from me. My dog and I had so much free time. I look back sometimes and ache at how little I appreciated that wealth, the hours and hours stacked on top of each other like gold bars of life.

My dog, an excitable, weirdly shaped mutt with long legs, loved trotting through the forest. We were naïve about alligators and I let her run free, chasing deer. She began to run like them, more leap than sprint. Sometimes she would stumble onto a snake and fling herself acrobatically away. When we returned, I would have to spend at least a half hour pulling ticks out of every corner of her body and mine.

One day, we were walking through the forest and I noticed several trees had ribbons wrapped around them. I didn’t think much of it until the following day when I went back. Bulldozers were taking everything down.

I was speechless. I tried to walk through to another part of the forest but they yelled at me to get away. I trembled and tried to stunt the nausea. It was violence.

I walked back to our apartment and realized that everything there must have once been just like that – maybe even just a couple years before I was there. It was all so new.

It imprinted on me a new, primitive, physical sensation attached to the concept of suburban sprawl. I had already covered various attempts to stop the endless single-family homes in every canyon and mountain valley we could see. In 2003 and 2004, an initiative to draw so-called urban limit lines around the county had fizzled. I’ll never forget former Supervisor Bill Horn heckling mayoral candidate and former Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis about his support for it while Davis tried to finish a press conference. Horn derided Davis as a liberal kook.

I watched the county work to develop the general plan about where growth should go and all the complex negotiations that went into it between developers and environmentalists. I remember, years later, when they finished it.

I have changed a lot in 15 years. I have kids and employees and savings and readers and donors and sponsors and worries and I spent all my savings of time. Now I work to earn time. Everyone I know can feel the cost-of-living crisis, primarily the cost-of-shelter crisis.

I know now that what I saw in the forest was violence and death and sad but it was also homes for many people – maybe even their dream homes – and enterprise and life and growth.

And so when Measure A came up in San Diego, I brought some of all of that with me. The measure said that if housing developers want to get special permission to build homes in rural areas not currently zoned for them, they’d have to get approval from voters across the county. All that to say, it was just a new version of the same effort to draw a line around where we already have built – or decided we could build – and then leave the wildlands alone.

Then there was Measure B, which was about one of those particular developments, the latest of several attempts to build in the Merriam Mountains north of San Marcos on I-15.

It all got to be very confusing for me. I wasn’t sure where to land.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher had come into our podcast studio and broken the news that he was opposed to Measure A. He agreed with the goals, he said, of restricting rural housing development where it was not planned but he didn’t think voters should have to make decisions like that. Then I saw the Democratic Party, using some of the most intense language of racial justice, argue that Measure A must be opposed on the grounds of equality. The affordable housing those developments would create were vital, they argued.

But then the party took the bizarre position to oppose Measure B, one of those very developments promising some of those affordable housing units. It seemed inconsistent.

Add to it the immense confusion we were seeing about the measure. People would ask me to explain and sometimes I would do well and they would thank me and other times I could see their minds atrophy and I would wonder if I should have chosen a different career because I am no good at explaining things, obviously.

On Election Day, we verified even more dizzying confusion. Some voters thought Measure A would create more housing in rural areas and thus they supported it.

So I hesitate to interpret the vote too much. But Measure A appears to have failed. And Measure B definitely did. And I have finally concluded that I was wrong. Those don’t have to be inconsistent.

Voters seem to have sent one message in two parts: They don’t like sprawl development. They’re going to vote against it every chance they get, it appears. But they also don’t want to have to vote against it. This isn’t their job.

It will be the job of a new generation of county supervisors taking their seats in less than a year. And they will all have to answer the question: What trees do you want to put ribbons on?

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