During a contentious mayoral race in Escondido in 2014, I wrote an article about Olga Diaz. She was the Deputy Mayor of Escondido at the time and she wanted to bring her brand of social justice and action to the City in which she chose to reside and which she has represented for 12 years.
She did not win that race; but she continued to fight for the residents of Escondido and won re-election to her third term in 2018. Now, she has her sights set on the County Supervisor seat and replacing its current occupant, Republican, Kristin Gaspar.
We recently spent two hours together to discuss her decision to run for the County Board of Supervisors, her ideas for representing the districts 600,000+ residents, and how she will manage one of the most diverse districts in the County which is often-times described as “gerrymandered.”
In those two hours, it became very clear to me – and hopefully to you when you’ve finished reading this article – Olga Diaz is the only choice to fill the County Supervisor seat. She continues to be smart, thoughtful, innovative, conservative (perhaps moderate is a better word), and well-prepared for the challenges which will face the next occupant of the seat.
Part two of my sit down with Olga Diaz, Candidate for San Diego County Board of Supervisors, District Three.
Our discussion veered towards a new angle on the fight for climate change: residential grey water. As is the case with most innovative things, the concept of reusing water for other purposes (e.g., reusing the water we washed our hands with to fill the toilet tank) is embraced in other countries. The State of California has added grey water to its plumbing codes and it is now legal in California.
I asked Olga how an elected official presents a concept like grey water to residents and developers and begins the work to reduce our impacts on our water supplies.
“People have spent a lot of time landscaping their yards and their gardens to be drought tolerant already, what if we helped grow the idea of ‘hand-me-down’ water?” Olga posed the question as she began. “You can’t drink the water you use to irrigate your garden and yards, so using water that we’ve washed dishes in or showered in is not something we’re going to be drinking. Using this for the landscape and garden seems like a natural fit.”
The problem is getting people to either retrofit their existing homes and install grey water piping (a very costly proposition) or find ways for developers to want to add this piping to new development so the capabilities are there.
“We should set policy to require grey water piping and/or systems as part of new development; for re-development, the case is more difficult because not every redevelopment project will be as extensive as what is needed to pipe an older home for grey water,” she explains. The major cost of grey water renovation is the redoing the pipes in older homes. Grey water systems must be separate from other water systems and must not contain any black water contaminants or food particles.
The cost of re-piping an existing structure is great, but it can be mitigated. Olga has come up with an innovative idea to help with the cost. She continued, “We do need to incentivize the addition of grey water systems; whether that’s a fee waiver or an allowance or stipend. We have done this in the case of solar; if you install solar you can get credits, or you can roll the cost of the installation onto your property taxes and pay it over time. We can do the same for grey water system piping.”
Our grey water conversation was part of a larger conversation on climate change, and water in particular. The fact that water has become our most limited resource necessitates we do more to protect the water we use for our homes and personal use. Advocating for new innovations – like grey water – helps maintain and preserve our limited water resources.
It also demonstrates the larger concern Olga has for the environment. With a reputation for being an environmentalist, Olga expressed the need for all of us to begin to rethink the way we live and the choices we make. The twenty-dollar pair of jeans we purchase, or the single-use items we discard, or the opportunities we miss when they are presented to us, all have impacts on our environment. Olga thinks about these things and wants to be the leader we need to make changes happen.
“We need to begin to understand, because of the needs of the world, our personal convenience should not be the utmost priority in making decisions; it should be sustainability,” she offered as she explained her approach to climate change and our impact. “Think about farm life. If you’ve lived on a farm you know this; if you’ve never lived on a farm, you should try it for a weekend. They don’t waste anything. And, I think, in our American society, we thrown everything away. If you are living a farm life, you make everything last several versions before you consider throwing it away.”
“Think of the flour sacks which had prints on them so they could be turned into dresses. There are many things which, for the sake of convenience, we use and throw away. I can’t address how people live at the county level,” she offered as clarification, “but we can set policies into place which will encourage us to change how we live, like helping store rainwater and encouraging recycling so we aren’t such a disposable society.”
Sea-level Rise and Coastal Erosion
We turned from grey water and rainwater, to sea water and sea-level rise concerns.
There is greater talk among the coastal communities about the coming of higher sea levels and the inundation of coastal areas. Del Mar and Carlsbad have already seen significant erosion of their beaches and bluffs and Oceanside, with the US Army Corps of Engineers, has an annual sand removal program from the mouth of Oceanside Harbor – which is used to replenish missing sand on the beaches. A priority for any elected official who has coastal communities as their constituents, is the need to understand the intricacies of sea-level rise and the urgency of how we address the problem.
“We need to implement the Coastal Commission’s policy of coastal development retreat,” began Olga. “There are things which we are doing now and things we could probably do in the future to try to save properties which have been built along the bluffs, but these things are, at their best, temporary and often help to increase the speed at which the coastline erodes.”
“We can build walls which will shore up the coastlines and the bluffs,” she continued. “The effect this will have is to change the dynamic of the waves and, studies have shown, this will carve out a ‘cave-like’ structure underneath the wall, which will further the instability of the coastline. So, we have the erosion from the top part of the wave hitting the coast, and the increased instability from the bottom part of the wave carving away at the coastline’s base.”
Coastal development retreat is in fact a very hot topic for the Coastal Commission. So much so, that at its most recent meeting in Chula Vista (the Commission travels up and down the coast to hold meetings in different jurisdictions) the Commission severely criticized the City of Del Mar for not accepting managed retreat as one of its options for adapting to sea-level rise.
“Take for example the train tracks which run along the bluffs in Del Mar,” Olga points out. “We are pumping concrete into the bluffs to shore them up, but this is temporary, and we know this is temporary. We need to have a long-term, sustainable solution for this problem.”
To play devil’s advocate, I asked what the difference would be whether there is a home on the bluff or not? After all, removing the home does not stop or reduce the impact of the waves hitting the shoreline.
“When we remove the homes along the shore, we remove the impacts which irrigation has to the coastline,” she answered. “The upstream impact of irrigation waters seeping into the bluffs adds further instability as the ground and the outer layers of the bluffs will begin to spall away faster.” Think of a glacier calving into the sea in Alaska. As water seeps into the cracks and crevices in the dirt and rocks on the top of the bluffs caused from the loss of stability below, gravity pulls a portion of the weaken face away from the bluff. “Irrigation of yards causes slope instability and erosion as much, if not more, than sea-level rise and the waves.”
Her Opponents in the Race
Our two hours was quickly coming to an end, and I had to ask about her race – specifically about her opponents. Olga is facing off in the primary race against two other women, incumbent Kristin Gaspar and Terra Lawson-Remer, a fellow Democrat rival for the seat. First, what’s Kristin Gaspar doing wrong?
“Kristin Gaspar is not doing much at all,” Olga begins. “Kristin and I work together on many projects and agencies throughout the county now, and she is a very nice person. Where she lost my support initially was when she, after winning the seat on the Board of Supervisors, immediately began to run for Congress, showing me she wasn’t interested in being on the Board of Supervisors. I lost a great deal of respect for her when she went to the White House (note: Supervisor Gaspar has been to the White House two times now) and was present when Donald Trump called immigrants ‘animals.’ She didn’t say anything; she didn’t challenge his language; she didn’t get up and walk out of the room. As a representative of my community, my friends and my parents, she should have said something, and I can’t forgive her for allowing that language to pass without challenge.”
“The County Board of Supervisors hasn’t done much for 20 years,” Olga continued. “And she has shown she is not really interested in the job by always looking for the next step or next position to fill. I will be there to do the work. I’m not interested in doing another job; I’m not looking for a place in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. to work. I want to let people know about the county and what it does for them on a daily basis. People know I like to do the work and that I will do the work when I’m elected.”
Her Democratic primary opponent, Terra Lawson-Remer, appeared on the scene after being a major driving force in the Flip the 49th Campaign, the movement to remove Darrell Issa from Congress. Lawson-Remer is also a former advisor to the U.S. Treasury Department during the Obama Administration. I asked Olga about the differences between the two of them.
“Experience; my experience makes me the better candidate for this position,” explained Olga. “I’ve spent quality time with her during forums and debates and it seems very clear not just to me, to her, but those who are there to watch, I have a mastery of local issues that she doesn’t have. She knows a lot about national and international policy in ways I have not invested my time. She’s never held office; she’s never held any office, certainly not local office.”
“She has been absent from the local scene; she grew up in San Diego but moved to the East Coast. I’ve been here for 20 years, 12 of those years I will have served in public office,” Olga continued. “I have the endorsements of most of the elected officials, not just in my region, but in the county. The biggest difference between she and I is this: My level of experience is applicable and relevant to local government. People know I can do this job which is why I’m the best candidate for the seat.”
How Do You Get the Cities to Get Out of Their Own Way?
Our two hours came to an end and I had one final question to ask about the importance of understanding the unique composition of District Three of the County of San Diego.
District One of the County encompasses South Bay. It is comprised mostly of the cities of Chula Vista, National City, Imperial Beach and parts of San Diego. District Four is entirely composed of the City of San Diego. Districts Two and Five, while they contained large cities (D2 has El Cajon and La Mesa, D5 has Carlsbad and Oceanside), the vast majority of the districts are unincorporated areas. District Three has the largest make up of incorporated cities and, therefore, a large number of different jurisdictions in the same district.
This is a more important point than you may think. Working with one or two cities which generally have the same issues is easier for a County Supervisor’s office then it is to deal with five or six different cities, all with different needs and concerns. Certainly, the concerns of Del Mar and bluff erosion and re-tracking the rail lines are not shared with the agricultural and/or Health and Human Services concerns of Escondido.
I cited an example for her. Former Supervisor Ron Roberts, at a SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) meeting, told the representatives of the other 17 jurisdictions which comprise the Board of Directors, the problem with implementing the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) numbers was not the federal government, state government, the numbers, or anything other than the 17 people sitting at the table getting in their own way.
Given this disparity amongst her future District, I asked Olga how she would plan to help the cities within her jurisdiction get out of their own ways and be able to implement county-level policies which would help all of the cities within the District.
“That’s an interesting question which I have thought a lot about,” Olga answered. “The land use decisions made in District Three are made primarily by incorporated cities. When it comes to an issue like housing, we need to realize there are ways in which all of these jurisdictions can help the situation and have it be beneficial to them.”
“Most, if not all, public agencies own land,” Olga explained. “I want to take an inventory of all these lands, whether they are owned by cities, the county, or water boards or school and hospital boards. We identify which of these lands are developable and place the lands in a trust or under a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA). Then, these developable lands are ‘donated’ to build affordable housing for people. Once the projects appreciate in value and can be sold out of the Trust or JPA, the proceeds from the sale help to pay back the jurisdiction for their donation.”
This is an interesting concept. The ownership of the housing development would remain with the Trust or JPA until a time where the project has appreciated in value. The property would be deed-restricted so it would remain affordable housing, and when a new housing company purchases the project, the profits made by the trust would go back to the jurisdiction to pay back the ‘donation’. This pays the jurisdiction for the investment and it helps get people housed.
“In the City of Escondido, for example,” says Olga, “there is a five-acre lot across the street from the old Downtown Palomar hospital building which the county owns. Our new RHNA numbers tell us we need to build 9,000 new affordable homes. To help get this done, we can use the developable properties which will be placed in the Trust, for example this five-acre lot, to count towards Escondido’s RHNA numbers, regardless of which agency owns the actual property. Once the property gets sold from the Trust or JPA, the County then recoups the value of its ‘donation’ and the City or County receives credit for building its affordable housing numbers.”
“Also, as far as housing in concerned,” she continued, “we can help shorten the timeline associated with the development or redevelopment of projects.” An industry-sponsored study from Point Loma Nazarene University cites the biggest cost to any development project is the delay and extracted timelines which local land-use authorities place on the development. The example Olga gives is the two-year timeline associated with just the environmental documents needed for a project to move forward.
“The EIR (Environmental Impact Report) could be done concurrently or independently of a particular development project,” she continued. “For example, the ballpark project which was going to be placed in Escondido. The City paid for an EIR to be done based upon the vision which was created for the project. Currently, there is a completed EIR waiting for a potential project to be done. If we could find the money to be able to create vision plans for areas and then commission EIRs to be done for those visions, we could save a lot of time and money for developers. They can choose which projects they would like to do and then ‘pay’ for the EIR at a cost-recovery level.”
This is a ground-breaking concept. When combined with the idea of “banking” available, developable property, the County’s housing affordability and availability crisis could be over.
These are the innovative and cutting-edge concepts we need in our local elected officials. The challenge of thinking differently from “what’s always been done” is met in the ideas being put forth by Olga Diaz. The County of San Diego needs a Supervisor who will always find new ways to tackle old challenges. Olga Diaz is that Supervisor.
Alianza North County is proud to endorse Olga Diaz for County Supervisor, District Three and we encourage you to vote in the March primaries for Olga. The County of San Diego needs her.