Site of the proposed Lake Jennings Marketplace in unincorporated San Diego County. / Photo courtesy of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation

It’s not easy to find a place to live in San Diego County, whether you are looking for a downtown apartment or a home in the suburbs. A report released last September showed that housing construction needs to triple to keep up with demand in San Diego. There’s also evidence that job creation is outstripping housing production in the unincorporated county by as much as two-to-one.

So what can the San Diego County Board of Supervisors do to grow our housing stock?

Voice of San Diego Commentary

For one, the board could encourage developers to stick to the county’s general plan, which took more than a decade and $18.6 million to write. The plan identifies the best locations for housing throughout the unincorporated county, including a variety of housing densities to meet the needs of home seekers of every income level.

The plan directs housing construction into existing towns and villages. This approach reduces the need to build and maintain additional services like water, sewer, schools and roads. It’s also critical that we protect our county’s remaining agricultural land and open space.

Unfortunately, county officials seem happy to change the plan at the request of just about any developer. Many developers rely on general plan amendments to build housing where it clearly does not belong. Proposed projects like the infamous Lilac Hills Ranch, Newland Sierra and Warner Ranch all fall into that category.

But general plan amendments can cut both ways. The Board of Supervisors seems just as willing to turn agricultural land into housing as it does to turn land zoned for housing into unneeded commercial space.

On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to allow a developer to build a strip mall in the unincorporated community of Lakeside, just outside of El Cajon. The catch? The Lake Jennings Marketplace would be located on a parcel zoned to accommodate 160 moderately priced multi-family homes, like condos or townhouses. County policy clearly states that parcels — like this one — that have access to sewers should be used first and foremost to accommodate housing. Moreover, it’s also the county’s stated policy to prioritize the development of moderate-cost housing, which is in low supply.

The Lakeside Community Planning group worked with county staff to develop a detailed plan for the community as part of the general plan. This bottom-up approach to planning engaged residents in the process of envisioning how their communities would grow. Involving community members at this level came at a significant cost — hence the extended timeline and large price tag associated with the general plan.

It’s one thing to spend taxpayer dollars to develop a plan and then to use it as a blueprint to guide land use for decades to come. It’s quite another for government agencies to make a practice of ignoring the general plan at the request of those who have the resources to work the system to their advantage.

The developer proposing to build this strip mall has been pushing his proposal for many years. Lakeside already has a gas station, a bank, a grocery store, restaurants, and plenty of vacant commercial space. Now, after being twice denied by the County Planning Commission, the project recently received approval for final consideration by the Board of Supervisors.

Despite clear evidence that building this strip mall would add significantly to regional traffic, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions compared to the impacts of building housing on the site, the commission gave the project a green light. State environmental law requires public agencies to favor development that meets land use needs while minimizing environmental and public health impacts; how can the county justify a general plan amendment for a project that does the opposite?

San Diego County has a long, unfortunate track record of saying yes to monied developers who wish to thwart the will of local residents. After a while, this pattern starts to look less like coincidence and more like corruption.

If the Board of Supervisors wants the public to believe that they are truly concerned about the lack of affordable housing, they could demonstrate their commitment by rejecting this ludicrous proposal. To do otherwise makes the board complicit in developer efforts to build what they want, wherever they want, with no regard to traffic, climate change or the cost of housing.

Jack Shu is president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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