Large Projects Induce Big Dreams For Developers, Environmentalists
If you have driven up Interstate 5 through the Grapevine from L.A. recently, you've undoubtedly noticed those 9,000 houses located on the west side of the freeway just as you drop down into the San Joaquin Valley. These are the houses built as the result of the San Emidio Ranch Specific Plan, a plan proposed by developer Dale Poe and approved by the Kern County Board of Supervisors more than a decade ago.
At least you might have been looking for those houses if you had been recently flipping through the back issues of California Planning & Development Report from the early '90s. But now that it's 2003, the reality is quite different. Dale Poe died in an auto accident. San Emidio Ranch went into bankruptcy. Eventually, almost 100,000 acres, including San Emidio Ranch, was purchased by the Wildlands Conservancy. It's now called "Wind Wolves Preserve."
If you flipped a little bit more through our old issues, you'd find articles about big projects proposed throughout the state, including Otay Ranch near San Diego, Gold Rush City in Lathrop, Mountain House in San Joaquin County, and the infamous Ahmanson Ranch on the Los Angeles/Ventura County line. And you would be equally surprised about almost all of them. At 23,000 acres, Otay Ranch was the largest of these development proposals, and it is being built out more or less as planned in both San Diego County and the City of Chula Vista. After years of battles between San Joaquin and Alameda counties, Mountain House is moving forward, too. But Gold Rush City never went much of anywhere, and now it has been reborn as River Islands, an 11,000-home project that was approved early this year by the local City Council. And everybody knows what's up with Ahmanson Ranch, which is still mired in litigation 11 years after the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved the project.
California is a big state, and even today — when the coastal metropolitan areas are approaching the "post-sprawl" era — California is still a state characterized by big development projects. Not only are some of the projects above still in play, but the plans are moving forward for Newhall Ranch in L.A. County (21,000 housing units), Rancho Mission Viejo in Orange County (14,000 units), and Tejon Ranch's Centennial project in L.A. County (23,000 units). Tejon already has a separate, industrial project approved on 1,500 acres in Kern County. Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakapoulos has won approval for 10,000 units in the Sunridge development in Sacramento County. And in the eastern L.A. basin, the San Bernardino County Agricultural Preserve is being broken up, creating big new opportunities — especially for Lewis Homes, which has been purchasing chunks of dairy property.
Planners in some parts of California — as in other fast-growing states with big landholdings, such as Nevada, Arizona, and Florida — are skilled at managing the planning and approval of very large development projects. In fact, there is a good case to be made that California planners are much better at doing specific plans than general plans, and that specific plans are the primary tool shaping the urban landscape of the state today.
But her is another twist in California that makes our state different from others when it comes to large-scale development projects: The Big Buyout. Californians have so little taste for large-scale projects these days that simply proposing one usually mobilizes a group of opponents who not only want to kill the proposal but, in fact, want some government agency or land conservancy to buy the property. Indeed, this is how opposition to Ahmanson Ranch has evolved. Having gone about as far as they can go in attempting to bat the project's construction down, opponents are now focused on trying to dig up hundreds of millions of dollars -- presumably in public funds -- to acquire the property.
All this focus on large-scale development is the result of California's still-strong pattern of land ownership in large blocks. Because of original Spanish land grants and the state's lackadaisical attitude toward land ownership patterns after statehood, most of undeveloped California is owned as large "ranches." And over the last half-century — from the creation of Irvine onward — California's urban expansion has been, in essence, the story of developing large ranches.
That is why the Specific Plan has emerged as such an important planning tool — maybe the most important tool — in the remaining undeveloped parts of California. By focusing the efforts of a local government and a landowner jointly on developing a large amount of acreage, the specific plan allows a planning process at a more meaningful scale — one that contains a specific strategy for development, infrastructure finance, and open-space protection — than in the long-range and often vague general plans that cities and counties adopt. Also, there is little doubt that the specific plan is on a scale that citizens can understand.
In a 2001 report released by the Reason Public Policy Institute, Solimar Research Group found that development projects tied to specific plans are more likely to win approval at the densities called for in the plans than are housing projects that are consistent with the general plan but which lack a specific plan. In a follow-up report scheduled for release on May 22, Solimar and Reason examined six case studies and found that planners, developers, and citizen opponents are often floundering when a general plan is applied to a development project, but that a specific plan provides a strong basis for review that is easier for everybody involved to grasp and buy into.
For two reasons, the Big Buyout is also a result of California's historical pattern of large-scale development. First, large-scale development projects make a much more attractive target for environmentalists and other opponents of development. They are able to rally opposition around a big development project owned by a big landowner; while many small projects slide through the process. And second, large-scale ownership patterns make the Big Buyout easy to achieve. Saving the ranch is simply a matter of negotiating one price with one landowner. Other states may have more money to throw at open space -- Florida, for example -- but they don't always have the other pieces in place that make the Big Buyout possible.
Hence the patchwork that is emerging from those projects that were approved a decade ago -- a Wind Wolves preserve here, a Mountain House there, and so on. The next generation of new suburban growth -- the Newhall Ranches and Rancho Mission Viejos, the River Islands and so forth -- will be shaped by the peculiar dynamic of the Big Specific Plan and the Big Buyout.