New county rules to encourage home building in unincorporated ‘villages’ near transit

The rules would allow 4,025 new homes to be constructed without developers having to pay for analysis or mitigation for ‘vehicle miles traveled’

San Diego —

A split county Board of Supervisors has approved rules to streamline development in certain unincorporated areas with the potential for public transit.


The measure, which passed Wednesday on 3-2 vote, is an effort to comply with state laws limiting vehicle traffic while at the same time boosting housing construction. But not everyone was onboard with the proposal as approved.


County officials said the new rules would greenlight construction of 4,025 new homes in areas that don’t pose high fire risks and are least likely to contribute to traffic and vehicle emissions.


Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond — Republicans who represent the greatest amount of unincorporated area — voted against the measure. They proposed a less restrictive version that would not take into account future transit plans and would have waived “vehicle miles traveled” analysis for more than 7,000 potential new homes.


For much of the past year supervisors have been deliberating how to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, while boosting housing production in unincorporated county.


VMT is a state standard introduced in 2013 to measure how many miles residents travel on average to work, school or other errands. The figure is used to estimate the traffic and greenhouse gas emissions a construction project will generate.


To get approval for a construction project, developers must show that it will generate fewer vehicle miles traveled than a region’s average or offer measures to mitigate that impact. Unincorporated areas tend to have higher rates of vehicle miles traveled than cities or the overall region, since residents often have longer commutes.


The new rules, approved by all three Democratic supervisors, will allow developers to build in specific “infill” areas without requiring analysis or mitigation for vehicle miles traveled. The plan applies to a number of areas of unincorporated land that are already developed with homes and businesses and are slated for transit lines.


“We have to look for the most legally viable way that we can put the housing in the right places, meet our climate goals and build more housing than we’ve ever built before,” said Board Chair Nathan Fletcher.


The board previously asked county staff to analyze options for expediting housing construction in unincorporated “infill areas,” or “villages,” where there is existing business and infrastructure so new residents can travel to stores or workplaces without long commutes.


Places designated as villages include the unincorporated communities of San Dieguito, Bonsall, Fallbrook, Ramona, Alpine, Lakeside and Sweetwater/Spring Valley/Valle de Oro.


The board also asked staff to consider excluding areas with high or very high fire hazards, to reduce the risk of wildfire threats to new homes.


Last month supervisors also asked staff to analyze “transit opportunity areas” — communities noted as possible sites for bus lines or other transit.


The only existing regional transit line in the unincorporated area is the Buena Creek Sprinter Station near Vista, the staff report stated. However some other future transit routes are spelled out in regional transportation plans and could reduce the number of miles driven by nearby residents.


Because the plan the Board approved limited exemptions from VMT analysis and mitigation only to areas with likely future transit, it excludes the unincorporated communities of Fallbrook, Bonsall, Valley Center, Ramona, Crest/Dehesa, Alpine and Julian.


And it reduced the number of potential homes eligible for that waiver by about 3,000, according to staff analysis. Anderson and Desmond said the plan would restrict opportunities for new home construction.


“If we really want to build housing, why are we limiting ourselves to only those areas that have transit opportunities,” Desmond asked.


Rather than contributing to housing growth, some said the plan would exacerbate the region’s housing shortage.


“Today we are looking at proposals to close off land to development and all but ensure our county will be unable to meet even our minimum requirements for housing development,” said Chris Anderson, president of the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors.


Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer noted that the county has had nearly a decade to make changes to its land use and transportation policies. She added that the original goal of the law was to encourage housing construction in areas close to transit.


“I think we all know we need to take action on climate change, which is an existential threat to our planet,” she said. “We need to tackle our affordable housing crisis, which means building affordable homes for working and middle-class San Diegans. And we know we need to abide by state law.”


Supervisors said the new rules don’t prohibit home construction in other unincorporated areas, but those developments would have to submit transportation analysis and mitigation plans for vehicle miles traveled.


An exception would be projects with 100 percent affordable housing, which would be exempt from those regulations.


County officials said they will develop a sustainable land use plan to manage housing growth in other areas and work with San Diego and other cities to create a “mitigation bank,” that developers whose projects are subject to VMT rules can pay into as mitigation. That money would be used for regional transit.


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