Faced with the possibility of adding another 1.5 million people during the next 20 years, Riverside County has embarked on an ambitious effort to plan for that growth. The Riverside County Integrated Plan seeks to combine land use, transportation, and habitat planning into one unified blueprint for growth. County officials emphasize that the planning process does not seek to restrict growth. Rather, the goal of the process is to channel and accommodate new growth while meeting federal standards for protecting wildlife habitat. "We think we're on the right track," said County Supervisor James Venable, whose district includes Hemet and other areas in the path of growth. "If we don't pull this off, Riverside County will be chaos." So far, the project is on schedule and all stakeholders — from builders to environmentalists — remain engaged in the process. But the project is reaching a critical point. "We will begin facing critical decisions in the next 90 to 120 days," said Mel Placilla, project manager for Svedrup Inc., an Orange County engineering firm that is coordinating the massive team of project consultants. County officials have set aside more than $20 million for the planning process, which they expect to take three years – a "fast-track" schedule for a project of this size. The end result will be three new plans: o The long-awaited Multi-Species Habitat Plan, or MSHP, which is expected to designate a preserve of more than a half-million acres in total and identify ways to acquire and pay for between 40,000 and 120,000 acres of new preserve land. o A plan for building two new transportation corridors — one east-west and one north-south — through what officials are calling the Community and Environmental Transportation Acceptability Process, or CETAP. o An updated county General Plan, which will create 19 specific plans in unincorporated territory capable of accommodating massive jobs and housing growth over the next 20 years. The habitat plan and the general plan revision will ultimately be approved by the county Board of Supervisors. The transportation plan must eventually win the approval of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, whose members include the county and its cities. Each plan has an advisory committee composed of 30 to 35 members, including stakeholder groups and other government agencies. Seven consulting firms are involved in the process, including Transcore (transportation), The Planning Center (land use), Dudek & Associates (habitat planning) and LSA (environmental review). The concept of integrating land use, transportation, and environmental planning in a local government planning process at such a large scale is unusual. But the Riverside County program has many parallels to regional and state planning processes undertaken elsewhere in the country, according to Marya Morris, a researcher at the American Planning Association in Chicago. An effort such as the New Jersey State Plan, for example, is probably comparable in size, she said. "It's big but it's not huge for that population," Morris said of the Riverside effort. "Conceptually, it doesn't sound that unique." The Riverside plan is almost certainly the most expensive local planning process in California history. The cost of the Riverside plan is probably comparable to some single-issue regional planning processes, such as the Natural Communities Conservation Planning effort in Southern California. However, the NCCP is creating 11 sub-regional plans dealing with only one issue, habitat preservation. If the Riverside plans are approved and implemented, they could represent a revolution in the way the county grows. The county's population has increased from approximately 500,000 people in 1970 to 1.4 million today. State demographers predict that it will grow to 2.7 million by 2020, meaning it would have about the same population that Orange County has today. In the past, most growth has occurred in unincorporated areas, with new communities becoming cities later on. The county has operated under a general plan that is "policy driven" — meaning it does not have a map outlining physical development — and the plan has frequently been amended. While all stakeholders are actively participating in the Integrated Plan, they do not appear to share a common vision — at least not yet. Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League is pushing for concentrated development in urban "nodes" that can support transit and other alternatives to traditional suburban sprawl. By contrast, Barry Burnell of T&B Planning in Orange County, who works for many Riverside County landowners, is unsure that urban-style transit is viable in the next 20 years under any scenario. Both, however, are enthusiastic about the process. "There's true political leadership in Riverside County," said Silver. Added Burnell: "They're approaching this intelligently. You don't see efforts like this every day." The multi-species habitat preserve is likely to form the broad outlines of the county's growth pattern. Riverside County has been under pressure from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to prepare an MSHP for several years. The county has completed a conservation plan to preserve one species, the Stephens' kangaroo rat, but the county has a rich biodiversity and many other species are likely to be listed in the future. The consulting team has identified close to 400,000 acres of publicly owned property that could be included in the preserve. An additional 40,000 to 120,000 acres will likely have to be acquired, either with state and federal funds or with money obtained from a mitigation fee system similar to the one now in place for the kangaroo rat. So far, the consulting team has written plans and established criteria but has not "drawn lines on a map" to lay out the preserve. On transportation, the consulting team has identified four possible transportation corridors, including: 1. A new east-west connection between Riverside and Orange counties, paralleling the already overburdened Highway 91 corridor. 2. A new east-west connection (actually running northeast-southwest) from Banning and Beaumont southwest to Lake Elsinore. 3. A new north-south corridor going north from San Bernardino to Moreno Valley. 4. A new north-south corridor going south from Hemet to Temecula, linking two fast-growing areas that also have a great deal of open land. Discussion about the transportation corridor has revolved around the question of transit — whether it is viable in Riverside County, and whether and how the corridors should plan for potential transit lines. Thus, the transportation discussion overlaps with the land-use debate happening in the context of the revised General Plan. With the consultants, the General Plan Advisory Committee has laid out three broad land-use alternatives — a "trends" proposal that simply extends current trends into the future, a "spheres" proposal that incorporates city plans regarding their spheres of influence, and a "vision" plan, which places more emphasis on infill development, land preservation, and concentrated urban nodes. The Advisory Committee has adopted a set of "vision statements" but has yet to craft the final set of land-use recommendations. Advocates of more compact development acknowledge that altering Riverside County trends will be a difficult political sell. "The 7,200-square-foot lot is a religion," said environmentalist Silver. One big question is how cities in western Riverside County will participate in the process — especially the land-use planning process. Cities are officially participating in the transportation and habitat planning components of the Integrated Plan, but the land-use plan will affect unincorporated county territory only. Project manager Placilla said his team is seeking to bring the cities into the process with a series of presentations — most recently in Temecula, where the City Council heard a presentation on January 18. Both Placilla and city officials say the county's effort is being received positively. "I think this is long overdue and I applaud the county for getting it together," said Gary Thornhill, Temecula's deputy city manager and community development director. Yet there is considerable bad blood between the county and many cities, which were incorporated because of discontent with the county land-use planning policies that created those communities in the first place. For example, in many cases the county has already approved projects located inside city spheres of influence. So for the cities, one goal of the process may be to change those projects or minimize their impact — perhaps by having some properties designated as part of the habitat preserve. For example, Thornhill recently praised a deal involving the county and the Trust for Public Land to purchase the 1,376-acre Johnson Ranch. In December, county supervisors approved a 3,500-home development on the ranch, which is located inside Temecula's sphere of influence. A week later, however, TPL bought the ranch for use as part of the species preserve. Contacts: Jim Venable, Riverside County Supervisor, (909) 955-1030. Mel Placilla, Svedrup Inc., (714) 549-5050. Barry Burnell, T&B Planning, (714) 662-2774. Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (323) 654-1456. Gary Thornhill, City of Temecula, (909) 694-6400. Marya Morris, American Planning Association, (312) 431-9100.