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Ron Roberts’ vote loomed large.

The fate of a massive 2,700-unit housing development proposed north of Escondido, Merriam Mountains, sat in his hands. His fellow county supervisors had deadlocked 2-2 on the project, effectively killing it in December while he was absent.

Roberts, though, called for another vote on a project that had all the makings of a classic suburban sprawl battle.

Most planning observers assumed that Roberts intended to side with supervisors Greg Cox and Bill Horn and pass it. But he didn’t, saying the project didn’t fit with his vision for rural development. Roberts said growth should focus on urban, public transit-oriented communities with fewer impacts to undeveloped land.

“That vote caught our industry by surprise,” said Matt Adams, a Roberts supporter and vice president of the Building Industry Association, a group of real estate contractors. “I would not call it a slap in the face. I call it vintage Ron Roberts, because he does his homework.”

The vote illustrates one of the lesser discussed but more tangible impacts voters will have on county government when they decide between the incumbent Roberts and challenger Stephen Whitburn on Nov. 2. Roberts can be the swing vote on land-use decisions across San Diego County’s vast rural areas, one of the county’s prominent functions.

And despite the fact that Roberts and Whitburn ultimately fell on the same side of Merriam Mountains, there are significant policy differences between Roberts, a moderate Republican, and Whitburn, a Democrat more likely to embrace environmentalists.

It’s an issue neither Roberts nor Whitburn is talking about with voters.

They’ve battled over fire protection and social services. But they haven’t focused on land use policies, even though electing Whitburn to the board could shift power on key decisions in which millions of dollars in property and large swaths of undeveloped land are at stake. The supervisors oversee land use across the county’s unincorporated areas, which cover about 84 percent of the county.

Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League and a Roberts supporter, said the vote highlighted Roberts’ willingness to weigh between environmentalists and developers.

“I think Ron is amongst the majority of the board that realizes there’s smart growth,” Silver said. “He kind of has the reputation of pro-development, but an environmental has to be pro-development somewhere, it just has to be in the right place.”

The calling for a revote had all the drama of a great political show. But Roberts, who represents the county’s urban core, said he resurrected the proposal out of courtesy to the developers who spent years planning Merriam Mountains. He didn’t hear the testimony the first time around and wanted to give them a chance to win his vote.

“I felt 2-2 is not a decision and one way or the other, we needed to make a decision,” Roberts said. “I hear criticism that I don’t make up a decision until after the meeting, and I’ll plead guilty to that.”

The current supervisors have been together for 16 years and rarely vote against one another on planning decisions.

In recent high-profile cases, however, the supervisors have been divided, with Roberts and Cox casting deciding votes. Pam Slater-Price and Dianne Jacob have allied to push against development for different reasons. Slater-Price typically emphasizes environmental concerns while Jacob cites the opposition from her rural constituents. Horn typically serves as the board’s most pro-development member, arguing in favor of individual property rights.

Roberts has been one of the board’s two swing votes because he’s been sympathetic to both environmentalists and developers. Whitburn doesn’t have a voting record to compare against Roberts, but those who know Whitburn say he would be a more reliable vote for the environmental community.

To describe the difference between them, each candidate pointed to the Sunrise Powerlink, a 120-mile transmission line being built by San Diego Gas & Electric from Imperial County to San Diego County. It’s an energy project that falls under the authority of state and federal regulators, but highlights how Roberts and Whitburn would approach county land use policies.

Whitburn opposes the transmission line, arguing that its construction comes with too great of a cost to the environment. Roberts supports it, saying the new transmission line would allow the county to shift its energy production to greener sources, such as wind and solar power.

Among the supervisors, Slater-Price and Jacob oppose the Sunrise Powerlink. Roberts and Cox support it. Horn has declined to weigh in on it publicly, in part because he owns stock in Sempra Energy, the corporate owner of SDG&E.

If Whitburn were to replace Roberts, those familiar with Whitburn say he would more often side with Slater-Price and put the majority closer to the environmental community.

By comparison, Roberts is a centrist on the board. He frequently criticizes how traffic caused by proposed development would affect air quality and calls himself the supervisors’ biggest public transit advocate. But he has sided with developers, too.

In January, Roberts opposed fee increases on developers that would’ve raised more than $1.5 million next year. The board approved them over his objections but then later scrapped the change.

And Roberts’ own re-election treasury has benefitted from developers’ support. About four out of every ten contributions came from people in construction and real estate, according to the most recent campaign reports. Roberts said most of the donors are friends and clients from his years as an architect and planning commissioner for the city of San Diego.

“I suspect if I was a medical doctor, I would probably have a lot of doctors on my list, too,” Roberts said.

Richard Miller, past chair of the local Sierra Club chapter, wonders whether Roberts turned down Merriam Mountains simply to improve his reputation among environmentalists before the June primary.

“His history showed he would have been in favor of it, but this was an election year and he has an opponent for the first time,” Miller said. “The only vote that he’s done for environment recently was the Merriam Mountain vote and that appeared to be political.”

As much as Roberts has advocated for better air quality and more public transit, Miller said it hasn’t been enough for the environment. The Sierra Club endorsed Whitburn, arguing that he would be a better advocate even without much of a voting record to prove it. Miller said the endorsement was more about Roberts’ failings than Whitburn’s pledge to support greener policies.

Adams and Silver said they didn’t know whether Whitburn would be more pro-environment than Roberts, because he has little record on county land use. Whitburn is a former member of the North Park Planning Committee and has only addressed land use decisions when speaking in front of the Board of Supervisors.

Jim Whalen, a biologist who works with developers, said Roberts’ efforts to cut down on pollution and move development into urban areas puts him closer to Whitburn than some think.

“I think Ron Roberts is just as progressive as Stephen Whitburn,” Whalen said.

Whitburn said he opposes Merriam Mountains and would be a more consistent environmental advocate than Roberts on other land use decisions. He pledged to push against rural development and promote mixed-use urban planning.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said. “My sense is that the current board has been too receptive to development in our open spaces and too receptive to restrain from the plans that are already in place.”

The supervisors will start holding hearings Wednesday on proposed revisions to the General Plan, which outlines land-use regulations and planned growth for the unincorporated areas. By deciding how rural areas expand, the supervisors will also be weighing how much growth falls on the back of cities.

Developers and environmentalists expect the hearings will continue until after the Nov. 2 election, but it’s unclear whether the supervisors would make a final decision before Jan. 4, when newly elected officials are sworn into office.

If Whitburn unseats Roberts and the supervisors have not made a decision by then, Whitburn could soon face one of the biggest land use decisions of the last decade. And that’s one reason why, if anything, developers and environmentalists are closely watching this race.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said Roberts was a former planning director. He is a former planning commissioner. We regret the error.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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