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San Diegans spend 100% more time sitting in traffic today than we did 15 years ago, yet 76 percent of us still drive to work alone. We rank 44th out of 50 for affordable housing versus other large metropolitan areas. Residential zoning and development in our region outpaced actual population growth, even into the recession.

What does any of this have to do with updating San Diego County’s General Plan? Everything.

On March 16, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will make some critical decisions related to the proposed updated County General Plan for the unincorporated area of the county, which comprises 84 percent of San Diego’s total land area. The plan presents a guide for where future growth will be concentrated, directly affecting issues like traffic congestion, housing availability and preservation of natural areas.

The updated General Plan is the first in more than 30 years and reflects 10 years of hearings, testimony, expert reports and hundreds of comments from residents, businesses and community groups from across the political spectrum.

Of course, it has not been without controversy. Hundreds of landowners have filed requests to be exempt from new provisions, and opponents of the plan claim it goes too far in restricting land use. Others say it doesn’t go far enough to protect San Diego’s backcountry. Even after formal hearings were closed at the end of 2010, an array of interests have lobbied the County Board of Supervisors to change some components or to do away with the update altogether.

Doing so would represent a monumental step backward. While the proposed updated plan is not perfect, it can set in motion a more forward-thinking and strategic approach to land use in San Diego, including more compact development patterns to create livable communities and reduce traffic congestion, water and electricity consumption, while improving air quality and ensuring future generations’ access to natural areas and parks.

The alternative to smart land use planning is familiar to any San Diegan; we encounter it in our everyday lives through traffic congestion, sprawl, underutilized and insufficient public transit, and limited affordable housing.

In fact, Equinox Center’s recently published 2011 Regional San Diego Quality of Life Dashboard revealed some staggering findings directly linked to the issue of land use. Until recently (between 2004 and 2008), residential development in our region outpaced actual population growth by 2.5 times. Thankfully, that ratio seems to be righting itself, though to what extent this is attributable to the recession versus better policies remains to be seen.

San Diego is at a crossroads. We are finally seeing strong indicators that San Diego’s economy is on firm footing again. Consumer confidence is on the rise and local want ads jumped 18% in February. San Diego County is poised to be one of the regions that leads the state of California’s economic recovery. The question before us is: as our economy regains momentum, will we continue with business as usual or can we shift to a pattern of more conscientious development that maintains the quality of life we so treasure in San Diego?

Supporting the proposed updated General Plan is a small step in the right direction. The next step is to hold all our policy makers accountable for both our short-term needs and our long-term future.

Ann Tartre is Executive Director of Equinox Center, a locally based, non-partisan research and policy center founded in 2008 dedicated to helping the San Diego region craft an intelligent future.

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