A thorough study of the San Diego Association of Governments by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) suggests that the organization has taken regional planning as far as possible, and more regionalism will require a change in governance and economics.

The LAO’s report does not recommend changes. Instead, it offers three options for the future: no changes; incremental steps such as making the organization more publicly accountable and altering government fiscal policies; or a broad governance restructuring in which the regional body would share land use authority with cities and San Diego County.

“There are no easy answers,” said LAO fiscal and policy analyst Marianne O’Malley, who coordinated the report. “All of the next steps have significant tradeoffs in economics or governance, and they are tricky.”

Gary Gallegos, SANDAG’s executive director, conceded the organization was not excited about having the LAO scrutinize SANDAG, as was required by 2003 state legislation. But, said Gallegos, the LAO was fair, and SANDAG staff and the executive committee will study the report.

“In a fair way, they [the LAO] highlighted the challenge that COGs have in that we don’t have land use authority,” Gallegos said.

Originally created in 1966 as the Comprehensive Planning Organization, SANDAG is the regional planning organization for San Diego County. Its 20-member board is composed of representatives of all 18 cities (San Diego has two appointees) and a county supervisor. It has authority over regional transportation planning, resource allocation and project delivery (except for the airport and port), prepares the regional housing needs assessment, and has responsibility for developing a regional comprehensive plan.

The agency’s lack of land use authority is at the heart of the 76-page study — and of nearly all discussions regarding councils of government (COGs). During the last 10 years or so, the Legislature and other public officials have tried to solve regional issues through planning, O’Malley said. Entities have adopted regional housing and transportation plans and prepared comprehensive “blueprints.”

“It’s a question of who will follow the plans,” O’Malley said.

The report suggests the answer may be no one.

“SANDAG’s plan may call for certain actions to reduce transportation demand, protect habitat, or promote housing affordability,” the report says, “but SANDAG has no direct means to influence local land use decisions to support these goals. SANDAG also has no authority to require its constituent agencies or other regional agencies to use their respective regulatory powers to promote regional objectives, such as improving water quality.”

For example, the report points to the agency’s “smart growth” efforts: “For at least the last 15 years, SANDAG has advocated smart growth. In virtually every major report or public presentation regarding regional growth, SANDAG has urged local agencies to use their land use powers to promote ‘compact, efficient and environmentally sensitive’ development that focuses ‘future growth away from rural areas and closer to existing and planned job centers and public facilities.’”

Despite these efforts, the percentage of the region’s households living in multifamily residential units has remained about the same since 1975. “If local agencies were following SANDAG’s suggestions, we would expect to see a comparatively high rate of multifamily permit issuance in the San Diego region — especially relative to California regions with fewer constraints on the amount of developable land such as Sacramento and Riverside-San Bernardino,” the report says. Yet the San Diego and Sacramento regions issue about the same number of multifamily permits per 1,000 persons.

While the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista “generally have aligned their land use policies with SANDAG’s recommendations,” other jurisdictions have not, the report continues. “For example, three cities plan to use at least one-half of their remaining vacant land for low-density, single-family residences (Poway 82%, Escondido 52% and Del Mar 50%). While these cities do plan for some intensive development on their vacant land, virtually all of this development is for purposes other than multifamily residences. The cities of Poway and Escondido, for example, plan to use over 20 times more land for nonresidential purposes (commercial, industrial and office) than for multifamily housing.”

This dichotomy results partly from the state’s system of local government finance, which makes regional retail development and high-end, low-density residential projects economically favorable for cities, the report notes. This issue of local government finance is an old one, O’Malley said, but it persists because any remedy creates new winners and losers.

Because, unlike some other regional planning agencies, SANDAG has authority over transportation resources, it can spend money in a way that encourages more efficient growth. However, SANDAG devotes only about 2% of transportation sales tax revenue to a smart growth incentive program. The LAO pointed out that even that modest amount “evoked some controversy” on the part of member cities.

O’Malley said a series of reports since the 1990s reached the same conclusion the LAO did: There might be benefit to shifting land use decision making to a regional entity, but people oppose losing local control.

“There is a reason why these hard decisions and changes have not been made,” she said. “Would people want to give significantly more land use authority or economic power to an agency led by an appointed body? That was never the intent of COGs.”

Gallegos said that SANDAG, like the region itself, has evolved over time, and he expects to continue seeing incremental changes at the organization.

Marianne O’Malley, Legislative Analyst’s Office, (916) 319-8315.
Gary Gallegos, SANDAG, (619) 699-1900.
LAO report: http://www.lao.ca.gov/