San Diego Business Journal

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.

, William Shakespeare

In 1989, the county of El Dorado made a fateful decision to update their entire general plan.

Although their population is only 160,000 (only slightly larger than the city of Escondido), it took them seven years of hotly contested hearings to complete their plan, and it may take another seven years to unwind itself from the plan's costly legal challenges.

Upon approval of their plan in 1996, El Dorado was sued by the Sierra Club and 17 other organizations. In 1999, 10 years after work on the update had begun, a judge overturned the plan and issued a writ making El Dorado the first county in California that is not allowed to approve "any" new land development permits. If San Diego County isn't careful with General Plan 2020, we could be next.

The county is two years into a general plan update process they had optimistically anticipated would take three years and cost $3 million. In July of this year, they unveiled their proposed "draft maps" for all 26 community planning areas and most in private industry agree it is a guaranteed lawsuit.

Unlike El Dorado, the county should know better given its experiences in court over the last seven years with Save Our Forest and Ranchlands.

In 1992, the county attempted an update of just the 91,000-acre Central Mountain community plan area. This resulted in a lawsuit filed by SOFAR citing an inadequate environmental impact report. It has been in litigation for seven years with no end in sight.

Unended Update

In 1993, the county attempted to update the 200,000-acre portion of its general plan known as Agricultural (20). That was also overturned by a judge's ruling on a SOFAR challenge. The latter case is under appeal by the county. The county is also prohibited from issuing development permits in both of the above areas.

They say that those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it, and it appears that the county may be rushing into a plan which gives SOFAR a bigger bone to chew on. To understand where the danger lies, one needs to understand how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) works and why counties like San Diego and El Dorado are vulnerable if they don't proceed cautiously.

The fundamental premise of CEQA that most people don't understand is that environmental impacts are assessed "plan to ground" not "plan to plan." This means that just because a proposed plan is a significant reduction in density to an existing plan, it doesn't automatically mean it will meet CEQA standards. All impacts must be assessed as if it was a brand new plan being applied to a given area of land.

Devil In The Details

Take, for example, the SOFAR environmental challenge to the Agricultural (20) general plan change. Even though the county approved a plan change which would have reduced the ultimate buildout of homes in this area by 61 percent, the new plan was still a 91 percent increase over the existing number of homes which were "on the ground" in this area.

Both Judge McConnell and Attorney General Bill Lockyer argued that the county didn't do an adequate job of assessing possible solutions or "mitigations" to biological and traffic impacts which may be caused by the proposed general plan update.

In the words of Judge McConnell, the county needs to go "afoot and afield" to assess what is on the ground and how it might be protected. One of the county's top environmental analysts confidentially told me that if the judge's ruling holds up on appeal, we may have seen the last general plan update in San Diego.

Many of San Diego's leading land development consultants are also worrying that the county's exuberance to complete General Plan 2020 expeditiously may be "pennywise and pound foolish" and put them in the same boat as El Dorado.

In the county's defense, they are tired of being sued on data in general plan texts which are over 25 years old, and everyone agrees that these texts badly need repair. Rushing through all of the community plan maps, however, is a recipe for disaster.

Even though the proposed plan reduces the county buildout by 186,000, the plan is still an increase of 52 percent over the existing population "on the ground." If approved, how might this plan hold up to a challenge which would require the county to solve existing traffic congestion on our freeways?

Wrong Assumption

Many assume the county will not be sued by SOFAR on General Plan 2020 since it proposes a reduction of 62,000 residential units, whereas SOFAR's Proposition B would have reduced the back country population by 54,000. Trouble is, much of the General Plan 2020's population reduction is in urban areas along Interstate 15 and the General Plan 2020 reductions in the rural areas don't meet the Proposition B goals.

SOFAR will undoubtedly take pleasure in using the county's own analysis of Proposition B to overturn General Plan 2020. They will submit taped testimony of the county Department of Plan Use's June 1999 hearing before the Board of Supervisors when they lambasted Proposition B because of its shift of 54,000 housing units to our cities, citing significant impacts to urban traffic, biology and agriculture.

Planning Director Gary Pryor's famous quote at that hearing, "I will let the facts stand for themselves" will undoubtedly come back to haunt him.

At the Sept. 29 planning commission hearing on General Plan 2020, Commissioner Mike Edwards asked the $64,000 question. Edwards (who owns one of San Diego's largest law firms in his day job) asked: "Is it prudent for the county to proceed with General Plan 2020 while we are still under appeal on the Agricultural (20) update?"

County Council Bill Taylor's response was "from a legal standpoint, the judgment against Agricultural (20) is not a legal precedent until the appeal is heard. Whether it is prudent, however, is a management decision."

Let's hope that the Board of Supervisors makes the correct management decision and tables General Plan 2020 until we are able to resolve the legal challenges to our last two updates.

Piro is a former county planning commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land planning firm in San Marcos.