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Sandag's comprehensive plan outlines county's future needs

As San Diego continues to attract hordes of people looking to escape the dreary winters of the East Coast and expansive plains of the Midwest, the recently approved Regional Comprehensive Plan lays out a blueprint on how to efficiently accept the growth.

The San Diego Regional Association of Governments board of directors approved the document July 23. The plan provides a framework for how future growth in the county should occur -- in denser pockets closer to transportation corridors.

Adopting the Regional Comprehensive Plan is a major milestone for San Diego, said Poway Mayor Mickey Cafagna, who is also the chair of the Sandag board of directors.

"I'm not sure this has been accomplished anywhere else, this is a very proud moment," Cafagna said. "Now it's up to us to make it work."

When Cafagna refers to "us," he means the 19 municipalities that make up Sandag because the Regional Comprehensive Plan is an advisory tool without any enforcement powers.

As the name suggests, the 405-page plan lays out how the region should grow in terms of housing, transportation, environment, energy and water. Sandag wrote the document.

The main focus of the plan is bringing land use and transportation planning in the same direction. The document identifies the county's main traffic corridors, residential and business areas and describes how future "smart growth" can occur to maximize existing infrastructure and most effectively plan for new projects.

Specifically, Sandag views "smart growth" as more dense development around existing urban centers and infrastructure.

With a projected population increase of about 1 million people by 2030, the Regional Comprehensive Plan is designed to plan where these people will live. One of the main problems under the current plans and policies is that of the more than 90 percent of undeveloped vacant land in the county, more than 90 percent is zoned for densities of less than one home per acre, said Carolina Gregor, senior planner for Sandag.

After years of public meetings, a host of committees and discussions with municipalities, the Regional Comprehensive Plan designates seven visions for what communities in the county can strive to become.

Based on size, population and community character, the growth categories range from "Metropolitan Centers" like downtown San Diego, to "Downtown Centers" such as downtown La Mesa and Vista Village Transit Center, to "Rural Communities" like Ramona and Alpine.

One of the primary goals of identifying these areas is to make it easier and more efficient to build projects, said Sandag spokesman Garry Bonelli.

Robert Leiter, director of Sandag's land use and transportation department, said that the document is an advisory tool and there is no enforcement authority.

Without any enforcement power, Sandag hopes to entice communities to fall in line with the vision by awarding monetary incentives that will be given out in the region.

The plan is being released at a time when other municipalities in the county are working on updates to general plans including the city of San Diego and the city of Chula Vista.

The hope is that communities will see what Sandag has planned for and incorporate some of those visions, Leiter said.

Each community has faced its own demons in trying to come up with planning ideas to accommodate the region's unavoidable population growth that are acceptable to residents.

A recent example of some of the issues is in the city of San Diego's City of Villages concept wherein most language alluding to density increase has been removed as a result of barrages of complaints from unhappy residents.

The Regional Comprehensive Plan also includes a transportation element that hinges greatly on the passing of the TransNet tax proposal, a half-cent sales tax that would be used for transportation projects. The proposal will appear on the November ballot.

Even this issue has been faced with controversy, as members of the County Board of Supervisors have not seen eye-to-eye with Sandag on how the TransNet money will be used.

As it will appear on the ballot, the TransNet dollars will be split about evenly between freeways, public transportation and surface streets.

The county supervisors wanted to see half of the total revenues go to freeways and 33 percent to local roads.

Sandag also plans to use about $250 million from TransNet for smart growth projects and about $850 million for the purchase of environmental lands.

The Regional Comprehensive Plan also includes goals for long-term energy, environmental and water goals that rely heavily on conservation.

Leiter noted that a new $1.8 billion capital improvement plan passed by the San Diego County Water Authority, which aims to provide more water from local sources, goes along with the goals in the Regional Comprehensive Plan.

A new energy working group created by Sandag, and the recent adoption of a regional energy strategy as written by the San Diego Regional Energy Office also help promote the conservation and energy supply goals established in the Regional Comprehensive Plan.

The Regional Comprehensive Plan calls for communities to link together protected habitat corridors throughout the county.

Related Link: www.sandag.org/rcp

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