By Jim Shilander
Tuesday night, members of the San Clemente City Council celebrated the accomplishments of the General Plan Advisory Committee, which has spent three years working on a plan for the way the city is expected to develop over the next two decades. Much of that discussion, and much of the talk in the recent City Council election, focused on how the city would develop commercially in that time, how it would expand its tax base and whether it should be more welcoming to larger development projects. But there’s another side to development as well, the residential side.
San Clemente has grown dramatically over the last two decades. According to Census data, the population of the city was just over 41,000 in July of 1991, and had a population less than 40,000 in the ’80s. At those numbers the city would be considered a good-sized, but small, southern California beach town. But the population of the area has boomed, fueled by developments like Talega. Between 1999 and 2001, for example, the city added an additional 8,000 people—20 percent of its 1991 population—in just two years. The city’s estimated population passed the 60,000 mark in 2007. The last year of Census data, 2011, puts San Clemente at just under 65,000 people. That’s an enormous jump in just over 20 years, an increase of about 59 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, San Clemente grew at a rate five times higher than Orange County, 27.2 percent to just 5.8 percent. Much of that population, however, has been added in single-family housing built on land that was readily open to development. There isn’t much of that land left.
Jim Holloway of the San Clemente planning department said the city wouldn’t be seeing the same sort of growth that it’s seen over the last 20 to 30 years in the next 20 to 30.
“We’re built out,” Holloway said. “In terms of green fields, we’re built out, for all practical purposes.”
Some areas, he said, may see some back fill that would allow for development, but that would be “peanuts,” compared to the kind of development the city had seen since essentially doubling the city population in 30 years.
A study of larger regional population trends says the same thing. The Southern California Association of Governments, which tracks and plans development for six counties, including Orange Countyas well as hundreds of municipalities, conducted a region-wide study of population trends beginning in 2008. The intent of the study was to develop region-wide plans for how to deal with a changing population, in terms of infrastructure, transportation and other potential areas of cooperation. Taking in information from the 2010 census, SCAG projected San Clemente to grow to a population of approximately 68,000 by 2020, a much slower rate than seen recently (there was a jump of 2,000 residents from 2009 to 2010 alone). But then the population growth was likely to slow even more.
“In 2035, we project a population of 68,300,” Huasha Liu, who studies land use and environmental planning for the organization, said.
That’s an increase of just 300 residents projected over 15 years. The region as a whole is projected to grow by 4.2 million people by 2035.
Liu said the projection takes past growth and other trends into account, and was sent back to the city for validation. Liu said this stagnation of population growth was not confined to just San Clemente.
“Overall, for coastal areas, especially in Orange County, we do see a stagnation as a result of build out,” Liu explained.
While the housing market as a whole may turn around, that’s not likely to change that fact, she said.
While the trends say another boom is unlikely in the near future, San Clemente may not be in the best shape to handle it if it does come. Without large, developable tracts of land available, the solution to an increasing population may have to be increasing density in some parts of the city. Essentially, since the city lacks the ability to build out, development would have to go up.
However, current zoning largely prevents that from happening, Holloway said.
“One of the big mistakes that the city made in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was that a number of areas along the freeway were up-zoned, which allowed for a lot of tri-plexes or quad-plexes, which really impacted congestion in those areas. Any future changes like that are going to be highly scrutinized by the city.” Holloway added, however, that he did anticipate there might be a few areas where some revitalization could take place, particularly along El Camino Real.
There are a number of natural checks on where San Clemente can grow. Camp Pendleton provides a hard and fast barrier to development to the south and east, along with San Onofre State Park. And Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano prohibit additional growth for San Clemente north or west. That means any future physical growth of the city would require currently unincorporated county land. Holloway noted that the city has not readily annexed any unincorporated areas without a natural reason to do so.
“Some cities have essentially an ego-driven need to become bigger,” Holloway said. “Over the years, San Clemente has been very careful. We have only annexed land when it made sense.”
During the development process in Talega, for example, about half the development laid within city limits, while the other half was in unincorporated county land. Holloway said the city worked with the developer and with the county to bring the remaining portion into the city. That way, those living in that half of the development could receive city services such as fire and police protection. “As you get further and further out, it may or may not make sense to annex land, but to annex for the sake of annexation would be a mistake,” Holloway said.
Future work is likely to focus on improving transportation and other infrastructure within the city, to allow more people to work and live in the area, he added.
“The business park is mostly built out too. We’ve had discussions at GPAC about increasing the intensity in the business park, however. Part of quality of life is being able to work and live in the same place. That family orientation is strong in San Clemente.”
A recent City Council decision illustrates some of the problems with the rate of growth experienced by the city. While voting in favor of a finance agreement for expansion of the city’s recycled water system into one of the business parks along Avenida Pico, the council heard testimony that the expansion would allow for more businesses to utilize the city water system, but that not all businesses in the area could be added because the topography of the area simply made it not economically feasible.
Mayor Jim Evert agreed with the assessment that the city had essentially been built out.
“The last really significant development we’re probably going to see for a long time is at Marblehead,” Evert noted, referring to a planned residential area that would be built along with the Marblehead Coastal outlet mall project. But, he advised, that development would be substantially smaller than past projects like Talega. One other area of potential addition might be annexation of a portion future housing project.
Brian Judd, the city’s consultant on the new general plan, said the GPAC had not really focused on residential planning, aside from keeping current restrictions and rules in place. Judd said the current GPAC plan made one large change, allowing for some mixed-use (commercial/office and residential) development on South El Camino Real.
“But that’s really the only new area we’ve identified,” Judd said.
For the city, it seems large-scale development, or high-density development, may not be necessary in the near future.