County supervisors voted 4-1 Wednesday to adopt a new transportation study guide that provides criteria for analyzing the transportation impacts of proposed developments in unincorporated areas — an effort to comply with state requirements to consider the number of vehicle miles projects might generate.
The board cast its vote following a presentation by Planning and Development Services, with some members noting that the county was trying to strike a balance between policies aimed at fighting climate change and the need to meet affordable housing demands.
Board Vice Chairwoman Nora Vargas said supervisors were not going to “make everybody happy today,” but had to do the best they could with such a complex issue. According to the county Land Use and Environment group, overall vehicle miles traveled “will likely affect where and how much future housing is built, at least until a mitigation program is in place” to give residents more options to drive less.
Supervisors in September 2021 voted 4-0 to rescind a previous transportation study guide, after the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released new instructions stating developers should use the entire county — not just unincorporated areas — as a basis for analyzing the number of vehicle miles traveled generated by projects.
The Cleveland National Forest Foundation filed a lawsuit against the county’s original TSG in San Diego Superior Court, claiming it violated state law.
The previous TSG was adopted in June 2020 and included the requirement for analysis of vehicle miles traveled — as mandated by state Senate Bill 743 that was signed into law in 2013. But the 2020 plan only considered vehicle miles traveled within unincorporated areas.
The newly adopted TSG is the first phase of the county’s effort to meet the requirements of SB 743. In February, the board narrowly approved measures to speed up new housing development, including aligning projects with state and local air quality and emissions goals.
County planning staff are expected to research a sustainable land-use policy on how development will proceed in the unincorporated areas, and present their findings to supervisors in December.
Planning staff are also expected to return to the board within roughly a year with updated California Environmental Quality Act guidelines for projects in higher wildfire hazard zones, along with an updated fire protection plan.
Based on a suggestion from Supervisor Joel Anderson, the county will also study other transit opportunities in unincorporated areas and allowing an expansion of wineries in communities such as Jamul and Ramona.
Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said in a statement that the revised TSG “represents a rethinking of our land use patterns to prioritize infill development, connections to transit and addressing climate change — while at the same time building more homes in the unincorporated area.”
Before the vote, Fletcher told his colleagues that the county’s transportation guide needed to line up with SB 743, even if the change is hard. Fletcher said SB 743 became law almost 10 years ago, but county supervisors didn’t get involved until 2020. Because state laws are explicitly clear on adopting a regional average in calculating vehicle miles, it would be “recklessly irresponsible” for the board to do something else, he said.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, who argued the county should stick with the unincorporated area standard — despite the guidance from the state — was the lone no vote on Wednesday.
Desmond described vehicle miles traveled as “a wrench in the ointment” resulting in fewer opportunities to build affordable housing. Desmond said from what he understands, a regional approach is not mandatory.
“This is the time we should be building housing,” Desmond said.
Desmond said it’s noble to want more housing near public transit, but not everyone wants live like a 27-year-old, and some would prefer a single-family home and backyard.
Desmond’s proposed amendment, also supported by Anderson, to keep original VMT metrics failed on a 3-2 vote.
In a statement, Anderson said the original VMT metric kept housing capacity at 18,000 homes, but the new one reduces the number of potential homes to about 5,870. Anderson said he doesn’t oppose VMT rules if they’re implemented correctly.
Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who called the new transportation guide a win-win, said if the county doesn’t comply with the state, “we’ll have ongoing uncertainty, which is fundamentally worse for everyone.”
During a public comment period, representatives of environmental groups and others in favor said a uniform VMT policy was needed for better, more ecologically sound development.
“Now is the time to take bold action to create cleaner air, and slash climate emissions,” said Cristina Marquez, an official with the International Brotherhood of Environmental Workers Local 569.
Opponents, some of them developers, said further restrictions would only make home ownership more difficult for middle-income residents, including teachers and first responders.
Douglas Barnhart, a county planning commissioner, said his group recently proposed using the entire county map to determine VMT baseline, while eliminating dense urban areas.
“A lot of people are trying to make this a lot more complicated than it needs to be,” Barnhart said. “A one-size-fits-all approach will not work for this diverse county.”
Robin Joy Maxson, chairwoman of the Ramona Community Planning Group, urged the board not to stigmatize towns like hers as “VMT inefficient.”
She also touted the important role such rural places play when it comes to agriculture, habitat protection and various popular events.
“Don’t penalize our towns and citizens — work with us to create a healthy future,” she added.
City News Service contributed to this article.