REGION — In compliance with state law, the Board of Supervisors approved measures for future residential developments in unincorporated San Diego County to focus primarily on housing infill near urban cores during its Feb. 9 meeting.
New housing development in unincorporated areas will be directed closer to previously developed zones with fewer impacts from vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, as a method to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
These areas of development can occur without VMT mitigation, which traditionally has consisted of restoration projects and bike lanes, until an environmental impact report can be prepared, which may take up to three years.
The development areas carry an 18-mile radius, according to the staff report, and any development outside would carry hefty mitigation fees.
However, the controversial new direction is being met with pushback, especially from the real estate and the Building Industry Association, which think the plan will halt construction and increase development costs. But proponents argue the plan will spur increases in affordable housing, transit service, reduce driving and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
“This has been a vexing issue the county has been grappling with for a long time,” Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said. “We have to do both of them and doing both of them requires us to do it differently.”
The board’s action was spurred by Senate Bill 743, passed in 2013, which requires the county to adopt a plan to analyze transportation impacts, such as VMT. The unincorporated county has a higher average for vehicle miles traveled than in urban cores, thus the county’s plan via SB 743, according to the staff report.
Fletcher said the county has to comply with state law, while he also said the county board built less than 600 units per year for the seven years prior to his election.
However, Supervisor Jim Desmond said the county, which had previously identified more than 58,000 units for development, along with the county’s obligation under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which runs until 2029, is 6,700 units. He said 4,025 units were identified in the approved plan, which falls well short of those goals.
However, the board did not approve a parcel-level analysis, which included the potential for 10,177 units, according to Supervisor Joel Anderson. Another challenge, he said, was most projects will not meet the state’s recommended 15% reduction in VMTs, while others can’t mitigate VMTs, so an EIR must be prepared at a significant cost.
“So, now any project that is consistent with the General Plan in those Villages will not be able to move forward for the next three years if they do not qualify for another VMT exemption (less than 10 homes or 100% affordable, for example),” Anderson said.
Dahvia Lynch, director of planning and development services, said the initial phase will be a revised transportation study and remove VMT as a barrier for development in infill areas. Also, the county will begin options for a sustainable land use framework and look for opportunities to build higher density projects.
Phase 2 includes working with the San Diego Association of Governments, Metropolitan Transit System and North County Transit District on a VMT mitigation program within three years, according to Lynch. Additionally, the county would develop methods for alternative transportation in the unincorporated county at a cost of $1.1 million.
Other components of the project focus on Transportation Demand Management, which includes rideshare, discounted transit passes and shuttle service. Electric vehicles, meanwhile, are not considered mitigation for VMT under current state law, according to county staff.
The county’s action is also tied to SANDAG’s 2021 Regional Transportation Plan, which is investing $172 billion, mostly in transit. Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said the county’s action will connect with SANDAG’s transit plan to include buses, transit hubs and the Purple Line of San Diego’s MTS.
According to Lawson-Remer, any development within the VMT area will not be required to analyze VMT impacts, although it must follow other CEQA requirements.
“The average cost of housing is way above affordable,” Lawson-Remer said, noting the plan champions more affordable options.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents much of North County including Fallbrook and Bonsall, said the areas with the most potential for development are Spring Valley, Sweetwater and Lakeside, while other areas have few opportunities for development.
Also, Desmond said the adoption of EVs will accelerate the county’s climate goals, while MTS’ Purple Line is still years, perhaps decades, away from reaching areas in the county’s plan, as no land has been bought for the line for possible construction.
Desmond, along with others such as the Building Industry Association, also railed against “fees” assessed to any housing built outside the VMT-dedicated areas. Those costs run between $10,000 to $19,000 per mile.
Supervisor Joel Anderson, who represents a large swathe of East County, also expressed concerns about parcels with a single-family home potentially being eliminated for other projects.
“There are no incentives for this density and nothing that makes this even real,” Anderson said. “It seems to me it was a lot easier to go to the moon on a slide ruler than it is today trying to build something in San Diego County.”