Beyond sprawl

"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.

Getting here

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 services.
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 years.
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" programs.

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:
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 Strategy
San Bernardino Valley-Wide Multiple Species Program
Palos Verdes Peninsula Natural Community Conservation Plan
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 the balance.
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 sidebar below]
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 the Environment.
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.

Endangered Habitats League

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.
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 limited resources."
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.