San Diego County’s groundbreaking General Plan Update is progressing while Riverside County’s first 5-Year Update to its General Plan illustrates how hard it is to keep good planning in place.

If successful, the San Diego General Plan Update will transform land use. As EHL’s Dan Silver said on KPBS radio on February 19, 2010, it would do this “by shifting growth away from rural back country areas and towards cities and towns, where it belongs.” At a series of Planning Commission hearings, EHL testified in favor of a land use map that meets these goals. The Commission’s recommendation on the land use map fell short, but a program to consolidate development away from natural resources – the Conservation Subdivision Program – was endorsed. EHL supported additions to the Conservation Subdivision program for design standards that safeguard community character. Adoption of the Update by the Board of Supervisors is anticipated in the Fall of 2010.

In 2003, with EHL a major participant, Riverside County adopted the ambitious Integrated Project for land use, habitat, and transportation, including revamping its outdated General Plan. The excellent Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Program resulted. While the massive General Plan effort failed to reverse inefficient patterns of estate lot development or to implement Community Centers to concentrate growth, it nevertheless clearly demarcated rural areas and put in place an innovative “Certainty System” to improve future planning. Specifically, major amendments to the General Plan – those changing the “foundation” land use categories of rural and urban – were limited to comprehensive 5-year update cycles.

But despite EHL’s intense engagement in the first update cycle, now underway, the potential of the Certainty System to provide an orderly framework for growth is not being realized. While we have been successful so far in holding off General Plan amendments (GPAs) in several relatively remote, high habitat value areas, elsewhere – particularly in the Coachella Valley – sprawl continues to advance into rural locations absent any demonstration that more housing capacity is needed. Part of the problem is that this update was not structured to provide a truly comprehensive approach.

The lesson is that even if a new General Plan makes improvements, maintaining that integrity is a constant challenge.