A framework intended to guide all local general plans in San Diego County could be adopted as soon as June by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). Advocates of the framework say it has the potential to be one of the most effective regional plans ever devised in California.

The Regional Comprehensive Plan (RCP) takes a decided turn away from the suburban model of land use planning and instead emphasizes transit, dense development along transit corridors and infill. The plan and SANDAG officials also make clear that the agency — which is also the county’s transportation planning agency — will determine many of its transportation investment decisions in ways that promote this more urban approach to land use. The "2030 vision" of the RCP’s Urban Form chapter starts off by saying, "Our homes are connected to attractive, efficient and well-integrated transit stations."

"We have an opportunity to do something really great in this region," said Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler, one of the plan’s biggest proponents. The RCP "is asking the cities to do things a little bit smarter."

The basis for the plan extends back to 1988, when San Diego County voters approved Proposition C. The measure called for SANDAG to prepare the Regional Growth Management Strategy. The strategy eventually became the Region 2020 Smart Growth Principles, on which the RCP builds further.

One of the major differences between the RCP and the earlier growth management strategy — and one of the qualities that gives people hope that the framework plan will actually be implemented — is that the RCP is a bottom-up plan. In addition to past SANDAG planning efforts, local general plans and extensive input from city and county officials and the general public provide the basis for the RCP.

The result is a plan that tries to tackle two problems at the top of many people’s list in San Diego County: housing and traffic congestion. Housing prices have reached the point that only one-in-six families can afford the median-prices home, which crossed the $400,000 line for the first time in December 2003, according to the California Association of Realtors. Moreover, SANDAG planners estimate the county will add about 1 million new residents from 2000 to 2030, creating the need for 407,000 additional housing units. Existing city and county general plans, however, provide for only 314,000 new homes. "The reason is that the development planned for our remaining vacant residential land is mostly for single family homes on large lots, instead of the smaller single family homes, condominiums and apartments that are urgently needed," the RCP states. So the housing portion of the plan is heavy on infill, rezoning, rehabilitation, affordable housing development — and incentives to promote those activities.

As for congestion, the RCP states flatly, "Our current regional transportation system will not meet the needs of a growing and mobile population." The plan insists that transportation and land use decisions must be better coordinated. The plan presents the concept of "smart growth opportunity areas." These would be areas in and near transit stations, areas of relatively high densities along bus routes, community and city centers, and rural villages in unincorporated areas. The existing Regional Transportation Plan provides $25 million for a "smart growth incentive fund." But it is clear that SANDAG policymakers intended to closely tie most transportation funding decisions to land use, especially to smart growth opportunity areas.

These smart growth areas are not one-size-fits-all, which is encouraging to the cities. "Whatever is smart growth for downtown San Diego is not smart growth for downtown Encinitas," said Pat Murphy, Encinitas planning and building director.

The smart growth opportunity areas, incentives and related matters remain ill-defined, but there should be more specifics in place by the time the SANDAG board considers the RCP in June, said Carolina Gregor, RCP project manager for SANDAG. Still, the idea is for local officials to identify their own smart growth opportunity areas, she said.

The RCP encourages cities to cooperate, said Escondido Mayor Pfeiler. If Escondido works with San Marcos, Vista and Oceanside to facilitate transit and dense development on the transit corridor, those cities increase their chances of receiving transportation funding from SANDAG. "We get cities to collaborate by rewarding good behavior," she said.

However, SANDAG has control only over federal transportation dollars and a local half-cent sales tax. If Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission do not along with the RCP, the plan’s effectiveness will be greatly diminished, said Nick Bollman, who heads the California Center for Regional Leadership. But there is reason to hope. Caltrans has provided funding for the RCP effort, and new Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak has advocated smart growth and public transit for years.

This proposed strategy for spending infrastructure dollars, however, worries San Diego County officials because it could reduce the funding available for road construction in unincorporated areas. The county’s proposed general plan, which has been in process for several years, seeks to accommodate growth in and near existing community centers, much as the RCP would like, but new roads will be needed, said Ivan Holler, San Diego County deputy planning director.

Aside from the road-funding concern, the county and SANDAG are taking the same approach. "To a great extent, the two plans propose similar solutions for land use," Holler said, except the county does not use the term "smart growth."

Both Pfeiler and Encinitas planner Murphy said their cities would have to make only minor modifications to their general plans to comply with the RCP. Their cities and most of the county’s 16 other cities are lining up behind the RCP. Some of the smaller cities do not feel threatened because they believe that under the RCP, San Diego and Chula Vista — the county’s two largest cities — will handle most of the housing deficit that SANDAG identified.

Bollman said SANDAG is farther along with an implementable regional plan than any other council of governments in California. This, he said, is because of good leadership at SANDAG, because some city council members hold regional perspectives, and because the developed region is well-defined by the ocean to the west, Camp Pendleton to the north, rugged mountains to the east, and the Mexican border to the south. Additionally, proposals from former state Sen. Steve Peace for a new form of regional government and the recent expansion of SANDAG authority over transit (see CP&DR, July 2002) have increased the dialogue about regional approaches, Bollman noted.

Carolina Gregor, SANDAG, (619) 699-1989.
Lori Holt Pfeiler, City of Escondido, (760) 839-4610.
Ivan Holler, San Diego County, (858) 694-3789
Pat Murphy, City of Encinitas, (760) 633-2696.
Nick Bollman, California Center for Regional Leadership, (415) 445-8975.
SANDAG website: www.sandag.org.