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Riverside County Plan Moves Forward

Riverside County officials are scheduled to start rolling out draft plans and environmental impact reports in February as one of the most ambitious planning efforts in California history reaches the homestretch. County officials vow that they will complete their integrated planning process and the Board of Supervisors will adopt a new general plan, transportation plan and habitat plan before the end of this year. If supervisors do adopt all three plans, it would culminate a $32 million, 3 1/2-year planning process. The combined plans are intended to let the county accommodate another 20 years worth of rapid growth, in part by outlining more than $10 billion worth of investment in transportation and habitat projects. "We can see the goal line. We're still pounding out yardage inch by inch," said Supervisor Tom Mullen, who receives most of the credit for starting the Riverside County Integrated Plan. County planners, consultants and interest group representatives have put in untold hours since the planning effort began formally in mid-1999. Simply coordinating the process has been an enormous task (see CP&DR, February 2000). There have been hundreds of publicly noticed committee meetings and thousands of internal meetings involving several hundred participants. Planners have tried to remain on schedule, but the timetable has slipped by several months, and some people worry that the process could stall later this year when the plans reach the Board of Supervisors. Indeed, critics are making themselves known. Various cities have gripes with aspects of all three plans, builders worry that the plans are setting the stage for the imposition of stiff impact fees, and environmentalists say the general plan encourages inefficient development. Plus, there is some concern that average citizens have not paid much attention so far and could protest portions of the plans during public hearings later this year. "The biggest frustration is with keeping the general public informed," said Edwin Studor, who is managing the transportation planning for the county. "At the present time, it seems like very few people know this is going on, and it's really important." The same goal ties together the three plans: accommodation of about 1.2 million more residents in western Riverside County nearly a doubling of the current population. The land use plan is mostly a suburban model that continues to permit large tracts of single-family homes. But it does designate about a dozen community centers where the county would allow development dense enough to support public transit. The transportation plan is supposed to establish a few new transportation corridors so that the county can begin protecting potential alignments from urban encroachment, and pursue new freeways, express bus lanes and rail lines. The habitat plan mitigates the impacts of the home building and transportation projects by designating areas for about 500,000 acres of permanent open space. Officials hope the habitat blueprint ends the piecemeal approach to endangered species and habitat issues. "Riverside County is being asked to pick up the tab for all that wasn't done with the environment, with infrastructure and with housing elsewhere in the [Los Angeles] basin," Mullen said. Growth projections Mullen began laying the foundation for the RCIP in 1996, when he started talking with county and regional planners, state officials and even Clinton administration appointees. After seeing the growth projections for Riverside County, Mullen decided the county needed to get serious about increasing its transportation capacity because most freeways in western Riverside County were already jammed. But he also believed that any major public works plan had to consider environmental factors up front not at the end of the process, as is typical in California. As his meetings progressed, Mullen heard more and more complaints about the county's general plan from both builders and environmentalists. Eventually, it became clear at least to Mullen that the only option was to prepare three plans at the same time. In mid-1999, the Board of Supervisors, county planners, a host of consultants and scores of "stakeholders" started work on the Riverside County Integrated Plan (RCIP) for the western end of the county. After completing a community visioning process in late 1999, planners approached the RCIP with some significant assumptions that have received little challenge: Riverside County would continue to grow rapidly, with its population almost doubling to nearly 3 million between 1999 and 2020; many western county cities would remain bedroom communities for job centers in Los Angeles and Orange County; homes for workers in new Riverside County commerce centers would lie even farther east; and some major new regional freeways were needed. While, the RCIP is something akin to statewide plans found elsewhere, there is no comparable model for the county to follow, said Richard Lashbrook, director of the Riverside County Transportation and Land Management Agency. "I think it's going well in terms of moving through the process," Lashbrook said. "It's just amazing to me the amount of work and amount of time it takes to get through portions of the effort, especially when you have to deal with other agencies state and federal cities, stakeholders groups." Mullen and other county officials have insisted that stakeholders drive the process, and the interest group representatives who have participated in the three large advisory committees say that county has kept its word. Stakeholders were the source of many concepts in all three plans. The land use plan Riverside County's 18-year-old general plan satisfies almost no one, partly because the plan has no land use map. The existing plan contains more than 200 different land use designations, making interpretation difficult for staff members, developers and the public, said Jerry Joliffe, who is heading up the general plan portion of the RCIP. Furthermore, county supervisors began repeatedly amending the plan almost as soon as they adopted it. The new plan will have more certainty, Joliffe said. The foundation components of the draft land use plan are suburban-style development areas, rural areas with small ranches, and agricultural land and open space, Joliffe explained. The draft plan does not call for definite boundaries nor does it use the terms "growth boundary" or "limit line" between the three components, but the proposal allows supervisors to make amendments only every five years. "We want to make sure we have edges between these communities," Joliffe said. Single-family homes on 7,200-square-foot lots have dominated Riverside County development for years. The draft plan seeks to boost density in about a dozen community centers called "transit oases" by offering developers density bonuses in exchange for architectural features, public amenities, and higher fees to fund open space purchases elsewhere. The draft plan also contains a transfer-of-development-rights program that would allow landowners to shift development potential away from rural areas, or to form small development clusters in rural areas. "Our plan is not one that limits growth," Joliffe emphasized. "We want to make sure we are going to manage that growth to the best of our ability." Thus far, builders have voiced support for the draft plan because it provides them with more certainty and provides many acres for future subdivisions. Environmentalists also like the certainty, but they would like to see less emphasis on large housing tracts. "My gripe," said Dan Silver, of the Endangered Habitats League, "is that there is still too much low-density development planned." Some cities, especially those along the Interstate 215 corridor, have also complained about the large-scale development that would be allowed in unincorporated areas near cities. The cities say the county should discourage development approvals if property is not annexed to a city, and that any development the county permits should meet city standards for streets, sewer, water and lighting because a city will likely end up annexing the area eventually. The county's continued approval of large subdivisions during the RCIP process has compounded environmentalists' and cities' concerns. The county has approved numerous large tracts since 1999, including of the county's largest ever in December a 4,600-parcel subdivision in French Valley, several miles east of Murrieta. The county now has approximately 100,000 approved single-family parcels awaiting development. The transportation plan The emerging transportation plan is the result of CETAP the Community and Environmental Acceptability Process. The idea is to settle on wide transportation corridors for freeways and transit systems. County officials want to preserve as much right of way as possible. They also hope to designate new regional routes for freeways linking western Riverside County with other parts of the metropolis. Studor, of the county's transportation and land management agency, said CETAP is the right approach. "The way land use planing and habitat planning occurred in the past is, you come up with the land use plan. And after you adopt that, oh, by the way, we'll need to do some transportation planning. And everything left over is open space, so that's habitat," Studor said. In this case, transportation planners have modeled their work on the likely built environment as of 2020. During modeling, planners learned that various growth alternatives did not significantly affect freeway demand within the county, nor needed freeway and transit services to job centers outside the county, Studor said. During the CETAP, planners and stakeholders produced a list of potential routes and have been refining the options so that there is one new east-west corridor, a new north-south corridor and one new link to San Bernardino and Orange counties, respectively. In December, the Board of Supervisors endorsed a corridor linking Moreno Valley in Riverside County with Redlands in San Bernardino County via a tunnel through Box Mountain east of Riverside. But while San Bernardino County has been willing to cooperate, Orange County has not. And one thing Riverside officials desperately want is a route through the Cleveland National Forest to Orange County. Currently, Highway 91 is the only freeway connecting the counties, and during the 1990s it became one of the most congested in Southern California. Supervisor Mullen conceded that any route over or boring through the mountains separating Riverside and Orange counties is controversial, but he believes the two sides can resolve their differences. City of Corona Planning Director Brad Robbins agrees with Mullen on the need for a new route to Orange County. Surface streets in Corona, on the far western edge of Riverside County, get flooded with commuter traffic daily as motorists seek alternatives to the 91 freeway. But when Robbins looks at the draft transportation plan, all he sees are more routes into Corona from the east and no way to move people farther west. Barry Burnell, of T&B Planning, who has represented landowners and developers during the RCIP process, said Riverside County must solve its intra-county transportation issues as well as the regional congestion that has become a plague. But Burnell said it makes more sense to add regional transit to existing freeway corridors, such as the 215 and the 10, and provide links to new local transit, than to build a new contiguous system of freeway and transit. Burnell's biggest concern, however, is funding. The county plans to seek voter approval later this year for extension of a half-cent transportation sales tax that is due to expire in 2008. Such a tax would let the county leverage state and federal funds, but everyone agrees the sales tax override will not be enough to fund a system that could cost at least $9 billion to build. The draft plan will call for uniform transportation impact fees to be assessed by the county and the cities. That will be a political fight planners alone cannot settle, Lashbrook said. And it's a fight that Burnell vows to take up. Developers are willing to help, but they will not pay a disproportionate share, he said. The habitat plan The Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) might be the most ambitious aspect of the RCIP. The draft plan involves up to 164 species and preserves about 510,000 acres of land making it the largest MSHCP in the country, according to Christine Lovelady, the county's lead planner for the habitat plan. Endangered species have been the most controversial land use issue in Riverside County since the 1980s, partly because local elected officials have been reluctant to change their pro-property rights approach. After the federal government declared the Stephens kangaroo rat an endangered species in 1988, local officials refused to take a broad approach to species planning (see CP&DR, April 1996, December 1994, September 1994). Instead, city and county officials spent nearly eight years writing a conservation plan for the "K-rat" only to have the joint powers authority that created the plan quickly fall apart. In the meantime, environmentalists and regulatory agency scientists have sharpened their focus on endangered species issues in Riverside County. The emphasis comes partly because similar habitat in Los Angeles County was wiped out by post World War II development that never considered plant and animal habitat. The MSHCP would serve as mitigation for the urban development and transportation projects encompassed by the other plans. The plan will maximize use of land already owned by the public, offer incentives such as fee credits and density bonuses to direct development away from sensitive locations, and focus on willing sellers, Lovelady said. The draft plan outlines large "envelopes" that contain candidate land for species protection. "It is an understandable compromise that provides more certainty than we've had in the past," Lovelady said. State and federal regulators and biologists have participated a great deal in the habitat planning process, giving the plan a strong scientific basis, said Lovelady. She believes environmentalists should get behind the draft plan because it provides big chunks of land, which should attract state and federal dollars. Silver, who has been involved in environmental issues in Riverside County for years, expressed some concern about the voluntary nature of the MSHCP. But he said the proposed uniform mitigation fee combined with state and federal funding could provide enough money to carry out the program. "It's been an extremely difficult process to work in because of the strong property rights atmosphere," said Silver, who is a member of all three advisory committees. While landowners have expressed concerns about the habitat plan, city officials could pose an even bigger obstacle because they would have to impose a fee of potentially several thousand dollars per unit, and set aside land for habitat policies that a number of cities have been fighting for 15 years. For example, the draft plan sets aside thousands of acres in the City of Beaumont's sphere of influence for habitat, but "there doesn't seem to be any consideration given to the loss of economic development options on developable land," City Planner Earnest Egger said. Furthermore, Beaumont has no interest in performing the detailed biological assessments for development applications, as required by the draft habitat plan, Egger said. The city has made the county something of a counter-offer but has been "largely ignored," he said. "They have done an absolutely horrible job of getting the cities involved and getting issues resolved," Egger said. "They've tried to strong-arm the cities at the last minute without any of the underlying issues ever getting resolved." Supervisor Mullen, however, defended the county's outreach to cities, and planners pointed to the countless public meetings regarding the MSHCP. "Are we working toward solutions? Yes," said Mullen. "The cities understand what's at stake. I'd say we're probably 80% of the way there." Burnell, the property rights man on all three advisory committees, said an MSHCP that provides a method for preserving land and a related program for ongoing funding is one of his priorities. "We've identified a need to house another 1.2 million people in the next 20 years in western Riverside County. If we have to go duke it out with the environmentalists and the NIMBYs over every project, we're not going to get very far," Burnell said. A complicated process To the general public and elected officials, a planning process that lasts three years sounds like a long one. But to planners involved in the RCIP, three years seems awfully short. "You want to have all of these people involved that's great. But it makes it hard to get business done," said Lashbrook, the county's top planner. "At some point, and we're getting close to that point, you have to finish. And sometimes finishing means you have to narrow the number of people involved." The "integrated" aspect of the RCIP requires that the 12 cities in western Riverside County as well as some neighboring counties jump aboard the bandwagon. Yet such regional agreement appears uncertain. "The idea and the concept [of the RCIP] are good," said Beaumont's Egger, "but just how they've gone about the process has not been the best." "It's really a good idea," added Corona's Robbins, "it just hasn't been sold right to use or any of the cities. Ultimately, if we don't agree with any of it, we don't have to do any of it." Silver, of the Endangered Habitat League, is concerned about these turf battles. "The cities' nonparticipation is the biggest flaw in this so far," he said. Mullen has heard the carping but appears determined to see the project through. "We've got the opportunity to do something right not perfect, but right," he said. Contacts: Tom Mullen, Riverside County supervisor, (909) 955-1050 Richard Lashbrook, Jerry Joliffe, Christine Lovelady, Ed Studor, Riverside County Transportation and Land Management Agency, (909) 955-6800. Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (323) 654-1456. Barry Burnell, T&B Planning, (714) 662-2774. Earnest Egger, City of Beaumont, (909) 769-8520. Brad Robbins, City of Corona, (909) 736-2262. RCIP website: http://www.rcip.org/