"Unmanaged growth is the dysfunction of the cancer cell"
Compiled by Carolyn Chase
n 1990, the population in San Diego County was 2.5 million.
According to a recent growth forecast by the San Diego Association of Governments
(SANDAG), the County's population is anticipated to grow to 3.3 million
by the year 2005.
SANDAG's attitude toward growth, presented at a recent
presentation on "Livable Communities" could be characterized not
as the infamous 'build it and they will come' but rather, 'they are coming,
whether we build it or not, so we had better cope with it the best we can.'
Regional land use strategies are being developed to accommodate this growth
while maintaining the region's quality of life - but the success of these
programs and our ability to fulfill on their promise will be decided in
the next few months.
California is at a crossroads. Our economy is emerging
from its worst downturn in 60 years, a downturn that has required nearly
all of the state's major industries to retool. Our demographic profile is
changing dramatically. New racial and immigration patterns are rapidly producing
a multicultural society, creating a variety of related social, environmental,
and economic issues. At the same time, California has emerged as one of
the most urbanized states in the union as our metropolitan areas continue
to grow in population and scale.
We face critical questions about our future growth that
will shape the state's and our region's economic vitality and quality of
life for the next generation and beyond. One of the most fundamental questions
is whether we can afford to support the pattern of urban and suburban development,
often referred to as "sprawl," that has characterized growth and
development since World War II.
But as we approach the 21st century, it is clear that
sprawl has created enormous costs. Ironically, unchecked sprawl has shifted
from an engine of California's growth to a force that now threatens to inhibit
healthy growth and degrade our quality of our life.
Sprawl lies at the heart of the very economic, social and environmental
issues that we face today. Rapid population growth and economic change are
occurring in a state increasingly characterized by a limited supply of developable
land, environmental stress and older communities in transition.
In the decades after World War I, California emerged as an economic and
political powerhouse providing jobs, housing and prosperity for most of
its rapidly growing population. Underlying this success was a development
pattern that emphasized expanding metropolitan areas, conversion of farmland
and natural areas to residential use, and heavy use of the automobile. In
the postwar era, this way of life worked for California. With a prosperous
and land-rich state, most families were able to rise to the middle class
and achieve the dream of home ownership. Government agencies and private
businesses were able to provide the infrastructure of growth - new homes,
roads, schools, water systems, sewage treatment facilities, and extensions
of gas and electric distribution.
Within the last generation however, this postwar formula
for success has become overwhelmed by its own consequences. Since the l970s,
housing has become more expensive, roads have become more congested, the
supply of developable land has dwindled, and, because of increasing costs,
government agencies have not been able to keep up with the demand for public
Despite local calls to "Prevent Los Angelization"
and some successful urban redevelopment efforts, traditional development
patterns have continued. Suburbs have continued to build out. New housing
tracts have moved even deeper into agricultural and environmentally sensitive
areas. Auto use continues to rise along with commute times. In short, the
"new" California with 32 million people and counting is using
land and other resources in much the same fashion as the "old"
California, with only 10 million people.
The cost of sprawl
The process of sprawl has unconcealed enormous social, environmental and
economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne
by society. Sprawling suburbs may be cheaper in the short-term for some,
but the "hidden" costs are ultimately passed on to taxpayers and
other community members in a variety of ways. As fiscal and cost-benefit
analysis techniques have become more refined, the true cost of sprawl has
become much more apparent. In the early l970s, planning consultants Lawrence
Livingston and John Blayney produced a landmark study showing that in some
cases, a California community would be better off financially if it used
a combination of zoning and land acquisition instead of permitting development
of low-density subdivisions. A few years later, the U.S. Council on Environmental
Quality produced its report, The Cost of Sprawl, the first comprehensive
analysis of sprawl's true expense to society.
The negative impacts of unchecked growth include longer
commutes and increased pollution from heavier auto use; higher costs for
taxpayers and businesses to build new infrastructure; and continued erosion
of open space and sensitive environmental areas. Traditional sprawl development
patterns have taken a massive toll on the natural environment: land, air,
water and wildlife.
Businesses suffer from higher costs, a loss in worker
productivity and underutilized investments in older communities. Agriculture
is squeezed out. And an attractive business climate cannot be sustained
if the quality of life continues to decline and the cost of financing real
estate development escalates.
There is a fundamental dynamic to growth, whether it
be the growth of a community or a corporation, that evolves from expansion
to maturity. The early stages of growth are often exuberant and unchecked
- that has certainly been the case in post-World War II California. But
unchecked growth cannot be sustained forever. At some point this initial
surge must mature into more managed strategic growth. This is the point
where we now stand in California.
Today, no one in California is unaffected by the cost
of sprawl. Its consequences spread across all groups, regardless of geography,
race, income, or political status. We can no longer afford the luxury of
sprawl. Our demographics are shifting in dramatic ways. Our economy is restructuring.
Our environment is under increasing stress. And we cannot shape California's
future successfully unless we move beyond sprawl.
The next few years will give rise to land-use decisions
of fundamental importance. They will help determine whether we can succeed
in re-establishing the economic, environmental, and social vitality that
have made it such a successful place to live and work for more than 140
A do-nothing approach, in effect, constitutes a policy
decision in favor of the status quo. This, in fact, has been the de facto
outcome. Many local governments have stepped in with policies that often
have served to promote sprawl rather than prevent it. Recent research has
shown that individual local growth-control policies do not stop development,
but merely deflect it often to another area further out on the metropolitan
fringe where the cost of development is even greater. The question is not
whether to address sprawl. The question is how to address it.
California must find a new development model. We must
create more compact and efficient development patterns that accommodate
growth, yet help maintain California's environmental balance and its economic
competitiveness. And we must encourage everyone in California to propose
and create solutions to sprawl.
Beyone sprawl - habitat-based planning
While the widespread destruction of Southern California's environment by
suburban sprawl is self-evident, the richness of the biological heritage
that remains is less appreciated. In one of the world's few Mediterranean
climate zones (short, wet winters; long, dry summers), scores of unique
- or "endemic" - species have evolved here. For example, San Diego
County contains more species of plants and animals than any other county
in the United States - 200 of which are rare, threatened, or endangered.
Many of the problems are in the coastal zone, where a community of fragrant,
subtly beautiful plants called "coastal sage scrub" has been reduced
to 10 to 20 percent of its former range.
Unfortunately, what little remains of coastal sage scrub
is targeted for more housing development. What's more, the habitat is "fragmented"
into pieces of questionable long-term value. The challenge is clear: link
up the best remaining parcels into a functional system, and incorporate
associated chaparral, grassland, oak woodland, and riparian habitats. Only
in this way will this Southern California ecosystem persist into the future.
Little hope existed, however, until conservationists
- led by the Endangered Habitats League [see below]
- succeeded in protecting a small gray and black songbird, the California
gnatcatcher, under the federal Endangered Species Act. An obligatory resident
of the coastal sage scrub, the demure and unlikely gnatcatcher became the
focal point of controversy. But instead of degenerating into a futile economy
vs. environment debate, the gnatcatcher has catalyzed programs which, if
successful, can move us beyond the sprawl and chart a more sustainable path
for Southern California and perhaps the nation - the "multiple species"
Multiple species planning
Recognizing that it made no sense to plan for a single species only to have
others listed in the future, a series of comprehensive programs has developed.
The current programs in Southern California are as follows:
All have the same general goals, namely, ecosystem protection, certainty
that future listings will be avoided, compatible economic development, and
preservation of local autonomy. The potential of these efforts is not only
to protect wildlife, but also to establish a new paradigm for future development:
that a healthy economy, a high quality of life, and natural open space are
mutually reinforcing. Furthermore, by providing an alternative to endless
sprawl, connected belts of habitat can foster the rebuilding and strengthening
of existing communities. Given the scope of the multiple species plans,
it is no exaggeration to say that the future of much of our region is in
- San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Program (south county)
- San Diego Multiple Habitat Conservation Program (north county)
- Orange County Central/Coastal Natural Community Conservation Plan
- Orange County Southern Natural Community Conservation Plan
- Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency Multiple Species Conservation
- San Bernardino Valley-Wide Multiple Species Program
- Palos Verdes Peninsula Natural Community Conservation Plan
The problems faced by the programs are immense. New
scientific methods to protect species must be devised, entrenched land use
plans must be revised in dozens of jurisdictions, acquisition funds must
be raised, and collaboration must ensue among traditionally hostile interest
groups. In order to overcome these hurdles, "stakeholder" groups
of the interested public (Advisory Committees and Working Groups) have been
set up within each multiple species plan to provide ground-up solutions.
For the conservation community, ecosystem planning provides
the best hope for biologically meaningful preservation. From the development
industry, reducing the need for future endangered species listings reduces
risk and provides substantial business certainty. For local government,
advance planning maximizes local autonomy and the opportunity to plan for
sustainable economic development, housing, transportation and open spaces.
Development processes and designs either pull people
together or keep them separate. Past efforts to reduce sprawl have been
hampered because little constituency exists beyond groups of government
reformers, some local government leaders, community groups and conservationists.
But many other players in California's future will also find themselves
increasingly stifled by sprawl and hopefully drawn into the process.
Environmentalists concerned about development have tremendous
opportunities to work with governments and community organizations seeking
to increase investment in more central urban areas. Farmers seeking a long-term
future in agriculture near an urban area can form very effective alliances
with those working to protect resources. Community groups, government agencies,
and builders can explore new marketing and funding options that support
home-building closer to major transit lines, taking advantage of the huge
demand for housing created by the state's dramatically changing demographics.
Taxpayers concerned about the inefficiency of governmental expenditures
can join with those working to make better use of infrastructure in existing
urban areas. There are literally dozens of such alliances waiting to be
and being created.
And while many interest groups are at the table, without
general public participation, the efforts will ultimately fall short. We
need to address sprawl through community action, public policy, private
business practices, and individual behavior.
The public - that's you - will have to provide the support
required by each of the City Councils and the County Board of Supervisors
and eventually at the ballot box for rezoning and/or funding measures. All
habitat planning, in order to become effective, must be translated into
law and accepted into adopted General Plans establishing appropriate land
uses and allowing for both respect and enforcement of the plans. [see SOFAR
To get in touch and stay connected with this process, contact Carolyn at the Earth Times 272-0347 or send e-mail to her at .
Carolyn Chase is chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management
Advisory Board, a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon Citizens Advisory
Council and recipient of the mayor's 1994 Spirit of San Diego Award for
Much of the information above was excerpted from a report "Beyond Sprawl:
New Patterns of Growth to Fit the New California" sponsored by Bank
of America, the California Resources Agency, Greenbelt Alliance, and the
Low-Income Housing Fund who firmly believe that California cannot succeed
unless the state moves beyond sprawl. The fact that such a diverse group
reached consensus reflects how important the issue of growth is to all Californians.
Copies of the report are available from Greenbelt Alliance.
Send a self-addressed envelope (to hold an 8 1/2" x 11" report)
with two oz. postage to: 116 New Montgomery, Suite 640, San Francisco, CA,
94105. For more information, call Greenbelt Alliance at 415/543-4291.
Additional excerpts were taken from the Endangered Habitats League and the
SANDAG MSCP reports.
In the trenches: SOFAR, so good
n November 9, 1995, Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell
issued an important ruling concerning the future of open space, agriculture
and watershed lands in San Diego County. The decision came after an 18 month-long
battle between the County and Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR).
SOFAR is a non-profit citizens group that was recently
successful in another General Plan lawsuit with the County over the Central
Mountain Community Plan. SOFAR also drafted and promoted the Forest Conservation
Initiative, overwhelmingly passed by County voters in November '93 to protect
the Cleveland National Forest from the threat of over-development.
"After one successful lawsuit and an initiative,
you'd think the County would see the public's interest in preserving San
Diego County's unique resources," said Steve Crandall, attorney for
SOFAR. "As long as the Supervisors continue to ignore sound land use
policy and the law, it forces us to remind them of their duties to serve
the public good."
This time the non-profit organization challenged the
County for allowing residential zoning on agricultural preserve land and
for failing to adopt an Agricultural Element to the General Plan. Judge
McConnell ruled that the County violated the California Environmental Quality
Act by not requiring an environmental impact report to study the impacts
of eight-acre zoning on agricultural lands. She also ruled that the General
Plan was inadequate because it lacked an Agricultural Element, which was
required to establish the basis for determining the minimum parcel size
for different agricultural uses.
McConnell's ruling involves thousands of acres of productive
crop land in west San Diego County and more than 400,000 acres of grazing
and watershed lands on the east side of the County.
"The County was attempting to authorize residential
subdivisions on agricultural land," said Duncan McFetridge of SOFAR.
"But if we 'grow' houses on this land, then we forfeit forever its
agricultural, grazing, crop, and watershed use. Furthermore, many of the
landowners in agricultural preserves have been receiving significant tax
breaks as part of efforts to keep land in agricultural production. By re-zoning
these lands for residential use, the County would in effect have the taxpayers
subsidize development, which they had already been paying to prevent."
McFetridge refers to the recent "Beyond Sprawl"
report as making the most compelling case for effective controls over land
use. "Urban sprawl burdens taxpayers with devastating social, environmental,
and economic costs. As citizens who care and realize the importance of standing
up for these things, SOFAR is working locally to make sure that elected
officials do their duty and carry out the public's desires to protect resources
and control development to support quality-of-life."
SOFAR is pleased with the ruling and views it as a unique
opportunity to change from the course that has destroyed agriculture and
open space lands in neighboring counties. "We can go the way of L.A.
or Orange counties with sprawl and overgrowth, or rather follow the leads
of Ventura, Marin and Napa counties in saving agriculture and open spaces,"
said McFetridge. "If allowed to, we can solve local problems such as
high water costs and innappropriate development, and instead revitalize
inner cities, make coastal flower fields, organic crops, orchards, grazing
lands and open spaces permanent and sustainable parts of our community."
You can help. While many folks contribute their time
and expertise, lawsuits are still costly but necessary to compel governments
to maintain community-planning values. Please send contributions and inquiries
to SOFAR, P.O. Box 475, Descanso CA 91916.
he Endangered Habitats League was founded in 1991 with
the purposes of ecosystem protection, improved land use planning, and collaborative
conflict resolution. They work to produce scientifically credible plans
for both conservation and compatible development, which are then adopted
and successfully implemented by local government. Membership consists of
individuals and other grassroots conservation groups. Their work is in the
five-county area of Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Diego, and San Bernardino.
Each county has a League Director elected by and reporting to the membership.
Endangered Habitats League
EHL was recently awarded the 1995 David Gaines Award
from the Planning and Conservation League in Sacramento. (Gaines was founder
of the Mono Lake Committee.) It is given to a local environmental group
for a long record of effective work to preserve the environment. They noted
"tireless efforts to preserve local critical habitat with extremely
San Diego's EHL Director is Michael Beck, who serves
on the San Diego County Planning Commission, and the Boards of the San Diego
League of Conservation Voters, Wildlands Recovery Conservancy, the Biodiversity
Network of San Diego County and key MSCP/MHCP working groups.
Both San Diego's "Multiple Species" programs are to be put into place during 1996. Financing and implementation hurdles will need more public support if these plans are to succeed. If you are interested in volunteering and helping support regional planning processes, call Carolyn at the Earth Times 272-0347 or send e-mail to .
Contributions to support their efforts can be sent to
EHL, P.O. Box 967, Trabuco Canyon, CA 92678. A basic annual contribution
of $20 includes a regional newsletter.