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Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022
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Proposed Density Changes Bring Up Issue of Compensation

As San Diego County officials commence the next round of discussion on how to update the county’s general plan, some farm owners are seeking relief from proposed density changes they say could downgrade the value of their properties for future housing and commercial development.

“The hope is that the amount of acreage impacted will be minimal, and those farmers who are impacted can be compensated in some way,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

Officials note that the process of updating the general plan — essentially a blueprint for accommodating future growth — has now stretched on for more than 12 years, as officials weigh the competing needs of communities, developers and property owners in a changing economy.

The General Plan

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The Board of Supervisors recently received from county planners a general plan draft that includes reductions in the number of homes permitted to be built on some parcels in nonincorporated communities. The latest in a series of public hearings was held Feb. 9, and discussion was expected to continue at a March meeting of the supervisors.

The general aim of planners is to concentrate development in existing town centers, while maintaining the rural nature of outlying areas by limiting development. According to the county, the most common proposed change would shift properties currently designated for one dwelling unit per 4, 8, or 20 acres, to allow for one dwelling unit per 10, 20 or 40 acres.

Gig Conaughton, spokesman for the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use, said that 20 percent of unincorporated properties in the county are proposed to receive reductions in planned density; 70 percent would be unchanged; and the remaining 10 percent would get an increase in density.

“We estimate that approximately 3,000 properties, or 140,000 acres, that currently or historically contain farmland or ranching would see a reduction in their development potential due to this proposal,” Conaughton said.

That amounts to 35 percent of the total of about 400,000 acres of agriculture in unincorporated San Diego County.

Scott Barnes’ family has grown apples, lilacs and other flowers at Manzanita Ranch in Julian for the past several years. Barnes said that in its current version, the county plan would approximately halve the number of dwellings that could be built on his properties, totaling about 170 acres.

The Land Uses

While he is not planning to sell his land anytime soon, Barnes said county farmers and ranchers have traditionally had three options to deal with tight economic times — borrow against their land’s value, sell all their property, or sell off pieces of property.

Barnes said farmers may need to be compensated in some way if density changes make their property less desirable to potential buyers, limiting owners’ options for selling parcels in order to stay in business. “This is just as big an issue as how many homes you put on a property, if not a bigger issue,” he said.

Conaughton said analysis by county staff and consultants found that impact to agriculture from the proposed general plan update will not be as substantial as many suggest. This is because existing densities are often infeasible due to other regulations, as well as a property’s remoteness, lack of infrastructure or lack of market demand.

But he said agricultural preservation programs, based on financial incentives for property owners, are being considered as part of the plan update.

A spokesman for County Supervisor Bill Horn, who represents North County communities that could be most impacted, said the supervisor stands by a statement posted on his Web site, in which he deems the proposed density change an infringement on personal property rights that could decimate local agriculture.

“We have come a long way in this process, and I do not believe the decision should be rushed for political expedience,” Horn says in the statement. “We supervisors have an obligation to this county and the property owners in it to approve the right plan, not just the right-now plan.”

County records indicate that of about 230 property owners who have filed appeals with the county to reconsider proposed density changes, known as “downzoning,” at least 36 are owners of land designated for agriculture.

Larson said the potential county changes could impact large swaths of irrigated farmland used to grow avocados, citrus and other tree crops, in places including Fallbrook, Valley Center and Pauma.

It could also affect nonirrigated land that is used for cattle ranches, in communities such as Ramona and Santa Ysabel.

While 2010 data has not been released, San Diego County agriculture produced more than $1.5 billion in sales in 2009.

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