Anyone who dedicates much time attempting public service for the government is confronted by the overwhelming resources of a system seeking to rebuff change.
Thus it was with little doubt that I knew what the outcome would be in advance of the Planning Commission's hearing for San Diego's so-called "City of Villages" growth strategy, which seeks to add another 17,000 to 37,000 housing units beyond the current capacities of the Community and General Plans. After three years of strenuous PR and public meetings who could really admit that the process lacked important analysis or critical thinking about alternatives?
But hope springs eternal, and pages of pretty planning prose and public relations keeps the game going. Good intentions underlie it all. I do not disagree that this "Strategic Framework Element" for the General Plan contains some good language. But good language that is not enforceable and sets no standards is just that: pretty prose and nothing more.
We're told that the implementing ordinances will come later. The standards will be evaluated later. But the unmitigated impacts described in the Environmental Impact Report make it clear the door is wide open for those impacts to occur anyway.
What were the concerns for the more than 50 members of the public who took the time to come downtown and attend the public hearing before the Planning Commission? Person after person proclaimed they already had "a village." Another pleaded: "listen to the villagers."
We are already a city of villages. Inquiring minds want to know: why can't we be a City of Parks? The way that we're going, we're inventing ourselves as the City of Parking. They are worried that, as has happened in the past, the growth will come but the infrastructure will not -- despite earnest planning staff reassurances to the contrary.
Those who do not learn from history are indeed doomed to repeat it. The City of Villages growth element for the General Plan continues to perpetuate the myth that the region can grow forever and maintain some semblance of quality of life. Anyone who has lived here for 20 years or more knows this is likely a false promise --- if not a false premise as well. Even recent residents have plenty of evidence that growth is out-of-control, mismanaged and subsidized on the backs of taxpayers and the environment.
The City of Villages is not going far enough to change this. This author was able to get them to add some phraseology to at least study the subsidies and consider really linking increases in urban density to reducing sprawl. The Commission attempted to make every effort to proclaim the importance of parks, open space and some kind of standards for quality of life. The parks and open space issues are to be debated during a subsequent effort to create a Park Master Plan
Yet planners steadfastly resist real standards at this level and they are not truly part of the Element. Statistics are manipulated to sell hope to the few who will listen. The EIR states clearly that the impacts will be significant and unmitigable in most major areas. The door is left wide open to reduce parks and open space. Claims that impacts to land use are insignificant as a result of adopting these policies are incredible -- as in not credible. They promise that they will somehow deal with the standards and mitigation later on. Quoting City of Villages planner Colleen Clementson, "Every Community Plan will be amended to be consistent with the Strategic Framework Element."
The fact that it would require multibillion-dollar tax increases continues to be pushed under the rug. The financial report that accompanied the process was a travesty because it looked at absolutely nothing related to the strategy or the growth itself. It only took a surface look at the "infrastructure deficit" based upon existing community plans prior to their needing to be amended to be consistent with the new strategy.
This means there was no analysis of the costs of actually accommodating the new growth. While they believe strongly that the consequences of doing it differently would be worse, they provided almost no analysis that this is truly the case. Perhaps it would be -- but it would nice to have it analyzed thoroughly instead of just pushing proposals with PR platitudes.
They also excluded any report of other major taxpayer obligations related to the Multiple Species Conservation Program and -- most importantly -- the costs of implementing the Regional Transit Vision. Some kind of greatly improved transit is required for there to be any reasonable means for mobility around the region. We cannot build our way out of traffic simply by adding freeway capacity. There is also no physical way to accommodate doubling car-traffic on local streets and roads.
Planners explained that economic analysis is not required for the adoption of this new element. They ignore a moral imperative to be as honest as possible with the public about the costs.
Regional models show that smart growth, as being pursued by Sandag and the City of Villages, is no where near smart enough. The resistance to increase densities high enough to justify the investment in a competitive transit system means they are planning for the worst of all worlds: increases in densities without the transit needed to make it function.
Even though growth accommodation approaches of the planning professionals and past political regimes have failed, planners continue to claim there are no alternatives -- or that the alternatives are worse. But they should be required to analyze them and prove their case. Facts show that traffic is worse and environmental degradation continues -- and will continue under this new strategy. How can promoting more growth ever bring that into balance? Without multi-billion dollar tax increases -- above and beyond the current infrastructure deficit -- it can't.
Only when elected officials start leading the charge to increase those taxes will the City of Villages strategy have any credibility. In between the dominant philosophy of "Build it and they will come" and "They are coming anyway," must be a better balance. Unfortunately, both the analysis and the leadership has been lacking to define it.
Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.