From One Paseo to Lilac Hills Ranch to Stone Creek, residents of San Diego County are watching as an epic political struggle between developers and communities rages on.

The problem facing communities in San Diego County is we are running up against a natural limit: There is only so much developable land. The first of these limits is obvious. You cannot set up a factory and churn out more land to meet an increase in demand. Other limits, such as water, also intrude. By necessity, this means that at some point development has to proceed up instead of out. Planners call this infill development, and generally orient it along transit corridors. This kind of development means greater population densities, which creates a whole new set of challenges.

One Paseo, Lilac Hills and Stone Creek

Each of these three projects presents examples of these challenges.

With One Paseo, the densities were well beyond what was called for in the outdated Carmel Valley community plan. The planning board in Carmel Valley said it was amenable to more density, just not the level demanded by the developer. One of the sticking points was the absence of public transit – belying the claim that it was an example of smart growth. The very public spat, which was ultimately won by the community, revolved around density and transit.

The current dispute over the Lilac Hills development southeast of Escondido is an example of building out as opposed to up. One of the main concerns is the inability of the local fire district to respond in the required time. Given the location, if response times don’t meet the standard, the risk of a structure fire causing a larger wildfire is high.

In Mira Mesa, the last undeveloped land in the community is now being mined by two major materials companies. The larger of two future projects, Stone Creek, is slated to go before the Planning Commission and City Council soon. Both land owners have enjoyed positive relations with the community over the years, but that’s being strained by the city’s failure to keep its community plans up to date. (The same underlying problem afflicted One Paseo.)

The city’s general plan stipulates an algorithm for calculating park acreage in a community based on its projected population growth. A community plan then implements these calculations by identifying where in the community the acreage should be set aside. Both the general plan and each community plan are policy documents that are supposed to bind city government to predictable practices. This is crucial for businesses and the communities in which they operate, as it helps provide a commonly understood foundation for important decisions. With the migration toward infill development, these policies are more important than ever.

Pro-Business vs. Pro-Rent Seeker

Understanding the issues and what to expect of our elected leaders requires that we wrap our heads around two related ideas: how developers’ interests overlap government interests; and the difference between creating wealth and seeking “economic rents.”

Businesses can pin their success on substantially improving products and services in the economy. If their products or services are measurably better than their competitors’, the value of those improvements is new wealth. But if a business pins its profits on using political clout to persuade elected officials to look the other way while policies are ignored or changed to their advantage, the profits enjoyed are considered “economic rents” as opposed to the creation of real wealth.

This is the problem we face: Our elected leaders are giving in too easily to rent-seeking, especially on the part of developers. At this point the problem is more acute among the San Diego City Council (I actually wonder if they know the difference between new wealth and economic rent) than the County Board of Supervisors.

In their pursuit of these economic rents, developers will appeal to elected officials’ budget concerns. If you take a single footprint of land at 100 feet by 100 feet, you have 10,000 square feet of land. Now, if that parcel is “entitled” for a one-story building, the land owner will only be able sell 10,000 square feet of developable land. Increase that entitlement to 10 stories; and you have 100,000 square feet of developable land. It is a bit of an oversimplification, but that parcel is 10 times more valuable when entitled at 10 stories than at one. When a developer sells land to a builder, they are not just selling the land; they are selling the land with its entitlements. The more aggressively entitled the land is, the higher price it will command.

Tax revenue is also tied to these entitlements. A property entitled for 10 stories is more valuable than a property entitled for one story, and generates more tax revenue. If the space is used for commercial activity, this more intensive use will generate more sales tax revenue. Budget analysts look at how land is zoned and entitled, and then apply statistical models to predict tax revenue. Thus, more aggressive entitlements are both in the profit interests of developers and the budget interests of elected officials.

Which is another way of saying the deck is heavily stacked against the rest of us.

This is why we have a general plan and community plans. These policy tools allow us to offset the coinciding interests of developers and government so we do not end up spending more hours in traffic than we have to, our kids have schools to attend and parks to play at and public safety officers can respond to emergencies in a timely fashion. When rent-seeking is allowed to swallow up policy whole, we are creating an intolerable and dangerous future for ourselves and our children.

Responding to the Challenge

Avoid the temptation to mindlessly demonize developers.

Past city leadership has failed us in Mira Mesa by failing to budget for a community plan update or ignoring what’s in the plan when it is inconvenient for developers. We succeeded in defending the Carmel Valley community through strong, clear and consistent advocacy with the City Council, not by demonizing developers and development.

Here’s how people can participate in that kind of advocacy:

Show up. Then show up again. Then show up some more. We are getting to the point of largely being built out. We live in a desert. We have had two major wildfires in the past 10 years. The stakes are simply too high to allow rent-seeking to go unopposed. It is entirely possible to be pro-business and anti-rent seeking. To be pro-business is to demand that our government streamline its processes and keep fees low to allow small business to innovate and improve things –to create real wealth and new jobs. To oppose rent-seeking is to demand that policies spelled out in the general plan and community plans actually be followed.

Participate in community planning. Our county and city planning groups (sometimes called planning boards) are where these plans are developed. There is probably no better place to get a sense of what is happening in your community today and what will happen in the future than the local planning group. These groups are quasi-governmental in the sense that they are called out in things like the municipal charter, so they have to operate in a somewhat formal fashion. They might seem a bit officious at first glance. But the formalities actually ensure everyone gets a fair hearing.

Vote – and then pay attention. Developers can make campaign contributions. But – believe it or not – this will not overcome persistent, effectively organized civic advocacy by a public committed to voting and paying attention to what those elected do in office. The single greatest ally to rent-seeking corporations is a disengaged public that neither votes nor pays attention.

John H. Horst is chairman of the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group.

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