March 21, 2022
Planners and policy makers in San Diego County are tackling tricky but familiar challenges — and they are succeeding.
On the affordable housing front, the county is focusing on streamlining development and making sure housing types meet local needs. Its accessory dwelling units (ADU) program has helped spur a 70 percent uptick in ADU development in the past year.
An update to the county's 2018 climate action plan, after a state court struck it down in 2020, is well under way. Now the plan aims to exceed state requirements, and planners are seeing strong engagement with its EV Roadmap, which is an effort to broaden access to electric vehicles (EV), especially in underserved communities. The planning agency is also finding ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) — no small feat in a county so large — while also preserving vast swathes of land for agriculture conservation and species and habitat preservation.
Read on for details of San Diego County's bold plans, described by its new director of planning and development services, Dahvia Lynch, AICP. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at planning.org/podcasts.
PLANNING: What makes San Diego County so unique?
LYNCH: It is such a diverse place in terms of people, climate, and ecosystems. We have small towns and urban areas, vast areas of incredibly rich natural land preserves, and a robust agricultural community. We serve the unincorporated area — so not the city of San Diego, and the coast, the beach, the things you think of. It's an area about 80 percent of the size of Connecticut.
PLANNING: To set the scene, can you tell us about the county's approach to community needs assessments?
LYNCH: It is one of the things that is most exciting to me on the planning front. We have incredible policy direction from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, who have directed us to take a data- and stakeholder-driven approach — which puts us in a position to optimize and use best practices that planners are at the forefront of.
We're not coming to the communities with projects or programs and saying, 'Hey, what do you think of this?' We are asking our communities: What are your needs? How can we begin to solve our challenges? We are combining that information with all of the data that is available to us through regional metrics, census data, and so on. Then, we come back to the community and ask if we got it right. If we didn't, we're going back to the drawing board.
PLANNING: Many parts of the U.S. are in a housing crisis. How is the agency tackling its affordable housing shortfall?
LYNCH: The purpose of the housing element of the general plan, adopted in 2021, is to ensure that we are planning for and removing any barriers to the development of up to about 6,700 units.
Our goals have really been to streamline housing opportunities. How can we make the right kind of housing, in the right place, possible? Planning is just one piece of it. There's an economic development component, as well as market forces and environmental constraints to development, that have to be considered. We've been directed by our board to evaluate what it would take to do a parcel-by-parcel analysis of certain areas and are asking: What are the barriers to implementing higher density, potentially affordable housing in these areas? Is it infrastructure? Is it a need to consolidate parcels?
So far, we have over 60 programs related to housing, including by-right programs and a fantastic ADU program that I'm really excited about.
PLANNING: Can you tell us more about the accessory dwelling unit program?
LYNCH: We've seen a huge uptick in ADUs. That is due to state regulations, in part, but I'm really proud of what the county has done to help facilitate that. We've committed over $10 million over a period of five years to waive fees for ADUs.
And, boy, have we seen the impact of that: a 70 percent increase in ADUs in the past year! We have also created fully approved, predesigned plans, which actually went viral on TikTok. That's not something a county gets to say a lot. Those designs, along with the waivers, can save folks up to $30,000 in fees.
LYNCH: Our climate action plan, and the update we're working on, is not aimed to just meet our state targets. We're going further, much further. Our board's goal is to go carbon neutral. We know that some of that is within our authority and some of it is far outside of it, so it requires partnerships with other agencies, as well as in academia, with other jurisdictions in the region and with the private sector.
One effort that offers a lot of co-benefits is our purchase of agricultural conservation easements, which benefits the property owners by reducing their tax burden, permanently conserves the land for agricultural purposes, creates corridors for wildlife, and acts as a carbon sequestration tool. It's a voluntary program, and we've permanently conserved 3,000 acres since 2011.
We also have created an EV Roadmap. We asked ourselves: How do we get electric vehicles in people's hands — everyone's hands, actually, because it's an equity issue? We are working with the private sector and communities, especially those that have been historically underserved, and have put together a comprehensive website with information on EV dealerships, choosing the right vehicle, scheduling a test drive, and accessing grant funding. We've had over 7,000 hits on that in the first six months. We're also mapping out where infrastructure would be needed to be able to support electric vehicles throughout the county based on gaps in service.
PLANNING: San Diego County is also looking at ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled, which must be a big challenge in a county so large and diverse.
LYNCH: It really is. And there are a lot of different state policy directives regarding climate change and net VMT reductions, along with housing, conservation, and agriculture. Without a really intentional thought process, these issues could conflict very readily.
If vehicle miles traveled is the driver, so to speak, of land use, a whole lot of development in these distant, remote areas isn't viable. We must have a focused approach, and that means planning for about 5,000 new units over this next housing cycle in the more urban areas of the county.
And this is where the parcel-by-parcel analysis I mentioned earlier comes in. We are sitting at the table with the building industry and market researchers, mapping out and putting dollars toward how to go from a vision to seeing housing — and particularly affordable housing and senior housing — actually get built in these areas.
PLANNING: San Diego County is also planning for a wide array of animal and plant species. What can you tell us about the county's efforts and outcomes in preserving and protecting its biodiversity?
LYNCH: You just opened the door on one of my favorite programs, and I'll let you in on a little secret: Our multiple species conservation program is actually what attracted me to the county over 20 years ago because it was such an innovative program. It was oriented to do two things: protect species through a large blocks of habitat preservation approach and to streamline development where it belongs, in areas that are better served by infrastructure and that don't have that kind of biodiversity. It was driven, at that time, by some of the endangered species issues that we were encountering in the community, but it really created an opportunity to start to focus more on the conservation piece, in addition to streamlining development.
The way the program works is, again, through data-driven processes: analyzing the most biodiverse areas with the largest blocks of habitat and critical corridors for species movement. A preserve is identified that's often comprised of quite a bit of private land, so we'll incentivize conservation in those areas. As for mitigation for development in areas where it is otherwise incentivized and in those areas where it's incentivized outside of the preserve, we're able to work with our local California and federal wildlife agencies to streamline permits because they're being offset or mitigated in those large blocks of habitat — which, from a long range perspective, in terms of the viability of the species, is really the most critical tactic that we can take.
It has been really successful, and it only covers a portion of our county. We have preserved almost 80,000 acres of a really vast array of habitat types for many, many, many species — far beyond the state and federally listed species that it covers directly.
PLANNING: Do you have any favorite species?
LYNCH: We have this adorable creature — it's always the charismatic cute ones, right? — called a burrowing owl. It has been a big focus of a lot of our conservation efforts and preserving its habitat has been a challenge that I think we've worked through for development. We've been able to kind of find the right place for the owls and allow their populations to grow over time, and then also streamline development in some of those areas where that conflict existed.
PLANNING: It sounds like the burrowing owl has a special place in your heart, but listening to you talk about San Diego County, I can tell that the county itself and the planning efforts and the people there are all very special to you.