San Diego County Planning Commission wasn’t able to address all of the scheduled issues relating to the county’s general plan update in February, but a preliminary recommendation was made on conservation subdivisions, also known as clustering. A new proposal to address equity mechanisms, which ensure that farmers are compensated for the loss of their property value due to downzoning, will be reviewed by county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff to ensure feasibility and legal defensibility.
The remaining General Plan 2020 items that were not able to be heard were continued until March 5.
Public comment, discussion and recommendations on specific properties and roads took place at four commission hearings in November and December, although some of those issues were referred to DPLU staff and returned to the commission in February. The broader issues discussed included conservation subdivisions, equity mechanisms and population projections.
The March 5 issues will include village core mixed use designation, alternative wastewater or septic systems, Williamson Act lands, permissive versus restrictive language, a pipelining policy for projects already under way and tracking general plan implementation.
A recommendation on the entire package is anticipated after an April 16 hearing, and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is expected to hold a hearing this fall.
Clustering allows for a larger open space area with smaller residential lot sizes than allowed under the zoning map. The open space may be agricultural open space as well as a biological open space easement.
The commission recommendation, approved 7-0, followed discussion on language that would ensure compatibility with community character by noting that conservation subdivisions were not allowed by right but would be allowed if they were consistent with community and other guidelines.
“We have to find a way to protect the communities which are concerned about it,” said Commissioner Michael Beck.
“We support the communities that would like to have them but not as a by-right in every community,” said Bonsall Community Sponsor Group chair Margarette Morgan.
Conservation subdivisions were known as clustering when such a project in Bonsall was approved in the 1990s.
“The remainder parcel is now a fire hazard,” Morgan said.
Bonsall’s more prominent equestrian facilities include the San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center and Vessels Stallion Farm, and an estimated 4,000 horses are stabled in Bonsall or roam in local pens.
“It’s very hard to put a horse on a conservation subdivision,” Morgan said. “We have topography that is an issue.”
Former Jamul-Dulzura Community Planning Group chair Dan Neirinckx, who is still on that planning group, noted that small lots are often purchased by homebuyers who then expect city services in a rural area.
The possibility that an open space parcel may be an agricultural easement makes the concept of conservation subdivisions appealing to the San Diego County Farm Bureau contingent upon simplicity and assurances.
“This can be an excellent tool for farmland preservation and equity protection,” said Eric Larson farm bureau executive director. “We think preserving agriculture in the agricultural communities is part of that character preservation.”
Other possible equity mechanisms include a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program in which a jurisdiction purchases development credits to preserve those lands from further development and a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program in which development credits are transferred from one location to increase development potential at another location.
The county is also in the final stages of negotiating a contract with the American Farmland Trust to serve as a consultant as the county develops and initiates a Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) program.
DPLU staff said that rural villages that could act as receiver sites for TDRs do not have the infrastructure capacity to warrant such expansion and that the SANDAG figures indicate that density in other areas is already sufficient to handle the planned growth. The staff recommendation was to focus on a PACE program and to consider possible PDR and TDR programs following the adoption of the general plan update.
That recommendation was unacceptable to the farm bureau. “The farming community bought into this massive downzoning and it is because of the promise of an equity mechanism,” Larson said. “That has not happened.”
In a May 2003 county board of supervisors hearing, several speakers stressed the need for equity mechanisms. During previous discussion on the general plan update, farmers had noted that the equity of the land is a critical factor in enabling farmers to obtain loans and thus leaving the land in agriculture. In June 2003 the county supervisors referred the issue of equity mechanisms to the interest group that has been providing input on General Plan 2020. That interest group consists of representatives from business and environmental interests, including the farm bureau.
“I can’t support the 2020 if there’s not an equity mechanism,” said Commissioner Adam Day. “The board directed it multiple times.”
Commissioner Peder Norby noted that the commission was hearing only from those who were losing density and value and not from those who were gaining density and value.
Norby noted that those whose properties were upzoned could add units without purchasing additional land or paying for the county process to increase the allowable number of units.
“The folks who have already been upzoned, they’ve won the lottery,” he said.
Norby suggested a fee on use of that increased allowed density, which would be applicable only to the additional number of units allowed. If a property owner did not wish to build additional units, he or she would not be subject to that fee. The fee would fund PDR and TDR purchases.
“At least it’s a proposal,” Commissioner David Pallinger said of Norby’s suggestion. “On the surface it makes sense.”
The staff review will determine if such a fee is an illegal tax or if it is a program similar to density bonuses triggered by certain commitments.
“If there’s no fatal flaw then it deserves attention to see if we can make that work,” Beck said.
Beck noted that assessing lost value was also an issue.
“This is not a simple issue to deal with,” he said. “The program has to be fair as well, not just the philosophy behind the program.”
Beck noted that the general plan maps are two-dimensional and do not reflect possible steep slope constraints, which would limit development.
“The existing zoning that people are claiming value for is paper zoning,” he said.
“I would like to have a plan, rather than rhetoric, that could be relied on by the public,” said Commissioner Bryan Woods. “There was reliance on the TDR process by those who were downzoned.”
While the commission took no official action on a recommendation, Norby and Day will work with DPLU staff. Matthew Adams of the Building Industry Association expressed a desire to be involved in the discussions.
“It is a very serious matter as far as industry’s concerned,” Adams said.
The San Diego Association of Governments maintains a population model for the San Diego region that is used for regional planning in conjunction with SANDAG’s Regional Comprehensive Plan and Regional Transportation Plan. SANDAG’s 2004 forecast predicted a population of 723,392 people in 235,861 homes in the unincorporated area of the county, but a recent update now expects 616,820 people in 202,882 homes by 2030 and 694,464 people in 222,890 homes by 2050. DPLU staff had recommended a population forecast of 717,213 people in 231,539 homes, and the Planning Commission voted 7-0 to adopt the staff recommendation numbers.