I was having a discussion with one of the movers and shakers in the Escondido business community this week who was a little bit nervous about what the election of the new majority on the city council might mean for the overall business atmosphere.
“I don’t like ballot box planning,” said this person.
“I don’t either,” I replied, but in the case of San Diego County one might perfectly understand how the frustrated voters might have come to the conclusion that they should be able to vote on big developments that alter the County’s General Plan. Otherwise their wishes will be ignored.
Take the case of Lilac Hills Ranch, which Escondido voters might be less familiar with than voters in the unincorporated areas. This large, 1,476 unit development near West Lilac Road and I-15, just a couple of miles outside of Escondido, was defeated by a two-third majority of the voters in 2016. Yet a couple of years later the Board of Supervisors was poised to approve it. The only thing that stopped it was a timely decision by a Superior Court judge that the County has been violating its own General Plan when it allows developers to claim to have dealt with issues of green house gases by taking credits from areas outside the county, the state, even the nation.
People in Escondido are, to put it mildly, very ambivalent about development. They want some of the amenities that new developments bring, such as infusing vitality into the Grand Avenue business district, but like most San Diego voters, they just don’t like or trust most developers.
At the Chamber of Commerce’s Governmental Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday Mayor Paul McNamara and Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez were treading carefully on the subject of proposed developments, such as the proposed Safari Highlands project.
The mayor said, “I’m not saying ‘no’ to anything, but we need feedback from all of our stakeholders.” He added, “I want an award-winning Safari Highlands, with net-zero housing and where all the houses have solar—with drought-tolerant plants with all the bells and whistles.”
Whether such a “net zero” project will still pencil out for the developer remains to be seen. But don’t blame the mayor if it doesn’t. He’s standing fast with the principle: “You dance with the one who brung ya.” Obviously, the developer of Safari Highlands didn’t bring him since he studiously avoided taking developer money.
All of which means Safari Highlands will get a fair hearing, and, most important, won’t get a hearing where the decision has been made well ahead of time.
The voters should get the kind of government that they vote for, even if it serves them ill. So, many moons ago, the city voters chose to go with the policies pushed by then Mayor Jerry Harmon and his allies. They got those policies “good and hard,” as H.L. Mencken might say.
The city pursued such ill-considered no-growth and anti-business policies that Harmon’s name is still used as a bugaboo by business friendly types who watched other cities on the Hwy 78 corridor pass Escondido by in many measurements of quality of life, spending priorities etc. For that and many other reasons the economy of Escondido faltered for quite a few years and cities like San Marcos, which was kind of a dump with a big dairy and a college when I was attending college there in the 1970s, became a well-developed city, very business friendly, so well-run that its mayor Jim Desmond just got elected to the Board of Supervisors in large part because of his city’s reputation for good governing.
If you don’t think San Marcos overshot Escondido in terms of prosperity, at least for a while, just take a look at the City Hall complex that San Marcos was able to build, despite being considerably smaller, with a population of 96,000 compared to Escondido’s 144,000.
So, while the new city government must dance with those who brung it, it also is responsible for keeping Escondido’s economy healthy. Those might be mutually exclusive goals. In which case, fasten your seat belts as the ride could get bumpy.