General Plan 2020: Request for working models

Planning being done now can help insure a livable San Diego in future decades.

by Gary Piro


or the County of San Diego General Plan 2020 Interest Group Committee (see below) to be successful, we need to come up with a consensus “win-win” recommendation to give to the Board of Supervisors on how the General Plan should be amended to deal with growth. To achieve this, we need to have examples of successful approaches to Smart Growth throughout the United States.

    The best source to begin with is the American Planning Association (APA) at A particularly good link is the Planning Advisory Service and Growing Smarter. Of particular usefulness to our committee would be the Legislative Guidebook that the APA publishes to help agencies implement programs for affordable housing, urban development incentives, transferred development rights, open space preservation, etc.

    I spoke with Marya Morris of the APA Planning Research Department. She advised me that it is the position of the APA that the best Smart Growth approach is the following:

  1. Establish higher density “nodes” of development in areas along major transportation corridors and areas with existing infrastructure. One good approach for determining where and how to develop is these nodes is the “new urbanism” approach as pioneered by Andres Duany, Elazabeth Plater-Zyberk and Peter Cal-thorpe.
  2. Implement a voluntary system of “transferred development rights” or “purchased development credits” to avoid development of rural areas. A good example of this approach is the Denny Triangle area of Seattle Washington (contact John Eskelinof Seattle's “Neighborhoods” Department, 209-684-0359).
  3. For all of the areas in between, implement Randall Arendt's Conservation Development approach, which requires compact developments with 40% to 50% open space. This program was pioneered by Mr. Arendt while with the Natural Land's Trust and sometimes referred to as Smart Conservation.

    Some successful models of these approaches follow.

Development Nodes


    Two good examples of programs that have successfully implemented incentive programs for creating higher density in areas with existing services and transportation corridors are the State of Maryland (referred by the American Planning Association as one of 6 states that have implemented successful Smart Growth programs) and the city of Austin, Texas (the city that hosted the 1998 national “Partners in Smart Growth” conference and the city which Fortune magazine named as 1998's number-one city in the country to do business).

    In their planning literature, Maryland says “they are not a regulatory program that prohibits development but rather an incentive program to enhance development in desired locations.” Once Maryland identified target areas for development, they labeled them “Priority Funding Areas.” An identical approach was implemented in Austin, naming these areas “Desired Development Zones”

    Our newly formed committee will have the luxury of something that the Steering Committee did not have in the formulation of their plan, a “mass transit transportation model.” Alan Hoffman of the Mission Group in San Diego has recently released the proposed transportation model, which was commissioned by MTDB and SANDAG and tentatively endorsed by NCTD. This is a proposal for a market-oriented public transportation network for the entire county.

    Our group might establish high density “transit oriented development” within 1 mile of these corridors (walkable) and “mid-range” densities for areas within 3 miles of the corridors (park and ride).

    SANDAG calculates that, by merely providing for these “high density” areas near transit areas and existing town centers, we can decrease the amount of area consumed by growth in the next 20 years from 623,000 acres under the existing plan to 343,000 acres, without downzoning one back-country lot. This can further be reduced to 216,000 acres with other urban area increases (note that Maryland and Austin did not need to use “downzones” to implement their successful Smart Growth plans).

Transferred Development Rights (TDR's)


    The “fairest” way to preserve lands in the back country is to buy the land at a fair price. Since we can't possibly afford to buy 400,000 acres of land in San Diego, the temptation of many people is to downzone the land, requiring minimum lot sizes of 40, 80 or 160 acres.

    Although we can't afford to buy all of the agricultural and sensitive lands we want to preserve, we are ignoring two significant economic concepts that we have at our disposal. The first is the fact that the properties that are targeted for increased density will realize a significant increase in land value. The second is that it is far cheaper to purchase “development rights” than purchase the land outright. A voluntary, free market approach to this concept has proven to work very well in Maryland.

    Randall Arendt recommends a win-win solution for us to consider. He proposes that lands along the transportation corridors be assigned their existing density with an “overlay” similar to Austin's “Desired Development Zones.” In these areas, San Diego could implement a ordinance that any development could increase density by purchasing development credits from backcountry owners on a “voluntary” basis, requiring that these areas provide 50% to 60% open space (to minimize visual and environmental impact) and implement smart growth features (e.g., community facilities, walkability, transit-friendly amenities).

    Simon Farlie of the Build Environment Network points out a very interesting reality about the purchase of development credits. He notes that landowners could sell development credits to Desired Development Zones (DDZ) and still realize land value expectation for far less money than most people imagine. First, the landowner still has the use of the land. Secondly, transferring development credits “cuts out the middleman” by avoiding the expense of the subdivision process, land planning, engineering, subdivision processing, marketing, brokerage fees and the construction of infrastructure. Lastly, is the time value of the money, which is instantly available by selling TDR's versus going through a 3- to 5-year development process.

    TDR's for agricultural properties are even cheaper because there is the base value of the farming operation that is lost when agricultural property is developed. Farmers frequetly have sentimental attachment to their land that makes them predisposed to sell development credits for less than what they would have realized by developing.

    On the other hand, a property in a DDZ that would allow for 8 lots could “theoretically” accommodate an increase in density of two to three times with no change whatsoever in infrastructure costs. The minimum private road width for an 8-lot subdivision is 24 feet, the minimum sewer size and water pipeline is 8 inches. That same road, sewer and water size holds up to 50 lots. With finished lots going for $200,000.00 each, it appears there is quite a bit of money available to pay for TDR's.

Smart Conservation


    The third APA recommendation is to use an approach that SANDAG had not considered when determining ways to reduce consumption of developable land: encouraging more compact developments with 40% open space. This is a concept developed by Randall Arendt.

    This approach would basically change our clustering laws to make them faster, easier and cheaper to process if the developer creates 40% or more open space for agriculture or sensitive lands that would be granted to an acceptable private agricultural or environmental land conservancy for preservation in perpetuity. Arendt further recommends that slight density increases be granted to these types of projects to pay for perpetual maintenance costs of these conservation lands.

    This proposal has been advocated by the Fallbrook Community Planning Group for the past 6 years. I have been fortunate enough to obtain endorsements for this approach from the San Diego Coalition of Land Conservancies, the Fallbrook Community Planning Group, the Fallbrook Revitalization Council, the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices, Walk San Diego and the Buena Vista Audubon Society.


    Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR) has correctly (in my opinion) pointed out that the Alternate 3 plan of GP 2020 has effectively eliminated the “urban limit line” by eliminating the existing regional categories that now exist in our adopted General Plan. We have developed hese categories over many years, and we rely upon them to develop our infrastructure. Our efforts should focus on reestablishing urban limits.

    As Austin mayor Kirk Watson points out, a successful plan will be one that can provide a “community vision” that everyone can agree on. If we deteriorate into what Watson calls “jump ball politics,” where you have a fight between development interests and environmentalists seeing which side gets the tip, we will be wasting our time and setting ourselves up for a lengthy and non-productive process.

What is the County General Plan 2020 “Interest Group Committee”

    The County General Plan 2020 “Interest Group Committee” was created by action of the Board of Supervisors when it flatly rejected the “Alternative 3” (growth distribution) that was prepared by the General Plan 2020 Steering Group.

    The Steering Group is made up of one member of each of the 26 planning and sponsor groups and was authorized to supervise the direction of the plan update for the entire unincorporated area. There was, at the same time, an “Interest Group” that also had input. However, that group was not formally appointed and was more of an outreach to affected parties such as builders, environmentalists, landowners, real estate industry representatives, chamber of commerce, etc. Members were not appointed, but the county contacted various organizations, such as the Farm Bureau, Sierra Club, BIA, etc. to send representatives. The problem with this approach was that this interest group was “subordinate” to the Steering Committee. The fact that the Steering Committee could veto any of the old “Interest Group” recommendations caused Interest Group members to lose interest.

    The Board decided to create a “new” Interest Group that would be at the same level as the Steering Committee. This new group has been given the charge to come up with 3 new plan approaches in the next 6 to 9 months.

    I am very flattered and excited to be on the committee. There are 7 members who are involved with environmental organizations, including Dan Silver, Phil Pryde and Eric Bowby. There are 7 members representing landowner and developer interests, including myself, Al Stehly, Jim Whalen and Matt Adams. There are also 3 professional slots on the committee representing the American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects and Americal Landscape Architects Association.

    My push at the first meeting, which everyone agreed with, was to request that the County provide models of successful Smart Growth programs throughout the United States. The American Planning Association considers 6 States to be the leaders in Smart Growth Concepts: Maryland, Texas, Washington, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

    Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land-planning firm in San Marcos. E-mail: PIROENGRCS.COM