“Public Hearing” on Ocean Beach Proposed Density Increase Falls Flat

by on August 10, 2011 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, Popular

OBcians give City officials their views on the proposed increased density. Pictured speaking is Sunshine, while Criag Klein, Seth Connolly, Scott Andrews await their turns. (All photos by Frank Gormlie.)

The good citizens of Ocean Beach were supposed to have a “scoping pubic hearing” on the OB Precise Plan EIR update and its proposals for increasing the density in OB – by up to 1400 dwelling units.  They got much less.

Over 35 OB residents, property owners, and small business owners crowded into the meeting room at the OB Recreation Center Tuesday evening, the 9th of August, in expectation of some kind of presentation by the City.  What they got instead were two City officials sitting at a desk with a tape machine whirring. There was no presentation.  There were no handouts or literature on the proposed increases.  The City brought nothing to the “hearing” except the tape machine.

City officials: Tony Kempton and Jeff Szymanski of the Development Services Dept.

Attendees were invited to get up and speak by official Jeff Szymanski, who sat next to Tony Kempton, the City planner for OB, who said a few introductory words.  Jeff turned on his tape machine. So,  OBcians got up to expound on the undesirables created with the proposed increased density of an additional 1400 living units in Ocean Beach.  Szymanski told the crowd this would not be a “debate” on the merits of the proposal, and would not be a “question and answer” session.

Just a tiny handful of groups from OB had been given prior notice of the “public hearing”. They were given a 15-page packet – that was NOT available at the forum itself. Several speakers complained about this.

There was a general murmur in the crowd when the issue of who received notices of the hearing.  Someone got up and asked the assembly, “who found out about this meeting either through the OB Rag or the Reader?”  Most people in the room shot up their hands.   And the Rag had gotten our notice of the event through a small article in the Reader by Dorian Hargrove.

When OBcians did get up, they spoke of the negatives that accompany increased density: more residents, of course, in an already dense village, but also it would bring more cars and traffic, more smog, less parking, more congestion; it would tear at the very quality of life in the neighborhood.  One speaker, a member of the Planning Board, described how with the Precise Plan lowered density and lowered the FAR intentionally and consciously.  Other speakers complained that the EIR did not address a number of issues, like architectural styles.  “The EIR can’t be silent,” one speaker said, “on adjoining communities – how the OB density affects their density,” and vice-versa.

The crowd packs it in, August 9, 2011, "public hearing" on proposed density increases.

Another person, a retired realtor, complained of the many illegal residents of OB, those who live in illegal garages, in their RVs, on “roof tops”. “We can’t bring more people in without addressing the homeless,” she said.  One speaker did accuse the City of trying to go-around any opposition by not getting the word out about the hearing.  If the City had done an adequate amount of noticing, she said, “you’d see a lot more opposition.”

Yet another person told how the City itself, through its website, promotes the funkiness of OB as a tourist destination. The implication being that increased density here would undermine that small town feeling. One of the last speakers said that any construction would bring in horrible levels of noise, dirt, congestion, etc.

Two speakers, myself and Geoff Page – who sits on the Peninsula Planning Committee -, derided the inadequacy of the noticing for the meeting.  “This forum doesn’t do anything except allow for general comments on density”, Page said. “This is an empty exercise.”

I also had gotten up, and read off my computations: The City had sent out notices about the “hearing” to 38 city employees and agencies, to 13 State of California agencies, to 10 other government agencies, to 17 non-OB community groups, like the Sierra Club, to 4 named individuals not of OB, and to 19 Indian tribes, but regarding the community itself – the community being affected by the proposals, the City only sent out notices to 3 groups, and NOT to the OB Historical Society and NOT to the OB Mainstreet Association.

I concluded that the meeting did not meet the notice requirements of a public hearing and cannot be used as such.

In addition, not only did the OB Rag nor the Beacon receive notices, but neither did the Union-Tribune;  the City had placed a notice in the San Diego Daily Transcript.  (About 12 people in all of OB read the Daily Transcript and they’re all lawyers or developers.)

To a speaker, the crowd had opposed any increase in OB density. But without knowing what the City was up to, the general sense was that they wanted city officials to return and do an sufficient job of informing and noticing the village.



{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Seth August 10, 2011 at 11:03 am

Frank, thanks so much for helping to get the word out, and apologies for not making sure that you and the community were aware of this meeting (which was not noticed until the beginning of last week). As questionable as the public noticing and meeting format were, I actually think it went pretty well.

The planners were able to hear some of the community’s concerns as the Precise Plan heads into the EIR phase, which gave them the relevant information they need to go forward, and also served as a rather strong reminder of how the community generally feels about certain issues such as density. This is very important, I think.

There’s a few points that would just like to clarify or reiterate here, however.

The first is that this process has not really taken place under the cover of darkness. Meetings have (sadly) been held on this document for going on ten years. There has been a lot of community input on this plan update, and there continues to be so. Many committed community members, such as Mindy and Andra, have worked for a very long time on this. One challenge here is that the actual plan update itself is still a draft document. It can be reviewed during public subcommittee meetings, but is not yet available for public distribution. This is unfortunate, because I think it is a good visioning document for OB’s future and has a lot that people will like. That we are finally entering the EIR phase and getting close to being able to hold public meetings on a completed draft version is a very good development. It is imperative in my opinion that this update get adopted in the short-term, and people should keep in mind that one of the big recent challenges was even having the funding for this required EIR in the first place. Last night’s meeting was again not for the big public review of the document itself, but rather a more general one in which the community could state their concerns about possible environmental impacts. There will be the opportunity for the public to add their input on the more nuts-and-bolts aspect of the plan update itself, just as there has been throughout this process.

The second point I would make is that the “1,400 additional new units” narrative that kind of dominated the discussion last night was inaccurate, as I understand it. There are other mechanisms in place that prevent that from happening, such as the FAR and 30-foot height limit. I believe we are already zoned for more units than can be built, in practical terms. This is not to completely discount the possibility of a “trojan horse” of some kind, so the more eyes on this the better, but growth of that kind has never been my understanding of what the projections are. What I have heard is to expect an increase of maybe 1,000 residents in OB over the next 20-30 years.

On this point, the wiseass in me was reminded by this meeting of the scene in Animal House where John Belushi gives his big speech…

“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

“The Germans?”

“Don’t stop him, he’s on a roll.”

In sum, thanks again for getting so many involved, and I’m feeling pretty positive today about the chances of a Precise Plan Update being passed in the next year or so that reflects the community’s vision for its future and how to handle some of the challenges that it will face.


Frank Gormlie August 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm
Sunshine August 10, 2011 at 2:41 pm

thanx for being at this meeting last night and covering it for the OB Rag. hearing the same questions throughout the evening such as, “What exactly are we here to comment on?” and “How can we comment on a proposal we haven’t seen or even been given facts regarding its content?” from so many in the community we outraged at the Citys approach. Do they think that we don’t care about the character of OB any longer since they’ve found new investment money? Please keep your eyes and ears open on this. we’re not about to let the fox manage our chicken cages.


Radical Uterus August 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Are you the Sunshine who friended me on Facebook, then disappeared before I could spend the time to get caught up?

If not.


Geoff Page August 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm


I have to differ with you on how well the public meeting went. When the meeting started, Jeff Szymanski referred repeatedly to “the project” in his opening remarks. The main item that caught everyone’s attention, the reason they came, was the issue of 1400 new residences of some kind. Rather than explain what he meant by “the project,” he clammed up and said he would only take comments and would not discuss the issue. What the hell kind of a community forum is that? All that happened was that people got up and stated their general objections to increased density because they had nothing specific to respond to. Any intelligent person could have sat down and composed a list of the concerns that were voiced that night without any public input at all. Of course those concerns are traffic, noise, over taxed utilities, etc.

You stated:
“The planners were able to hear some of the community’s concerns as the Precise Plan heads into the EIR phase, which gave them the relevant information they need to go forward, and also served as a rather strong reminder of how the community generally feels about certain issues such as density. This is very important, I think.”

You could have polled 10 people of the streets of OB and gotten the same answers. What relevant information did they obtain for going forward? Nothing more than they already knew about OB.

Frankly, I was amazed to hear that this has been the subject of an OBPB subcommittee for 10 years. 10 years?! And they are just getting around to community forums like the farce we all attended?

You stated:
“The second point I would make is that the “1,400 additional new units” narrative that kind of dominated the discussion last night was inaccurate, as I understand it. There are other mechanisms in place that prevent that from happening, such as the FAR and 30-foot height limit.”

The Floor Area Ratio requirement and the 30-foot height limit will not prevent densification. Zoning is the issue. They are promoting what they call the “City of Villages,” which is a euphemism for higher density zoning. Developers realize there is little open space left to work with so the new push is “in-fill” and this City of Villages idea is a feel-good term for in-fill. Some people think this is a good idea, but until we improve our mass transit system and provide places for people to work in these “villages,” it just means more people crowded together.

The way the City handled its community forum is formulaic. Inadequate notice, inadequate presentation, meetings held at inconvenient times at inconvenient places, etc. They are required to hold these community forums but they often only adhere to the bare minimum requirements. I ask you, what purpose did it serve us to have Tony Kempton sitting at this meeting on our taxpayer dime? It only served the City’s purposes because they can say they sent a representative from the Planning Department. The record won’t show that he sat there like a stone the whole time and contributed nothing.

I repeat what I said that night, to say this satisfied the requirement for a public forum is ridiculous. Rather than trying to put a positive spin on it, as you have done and as good people tried to do that night, we should express our displeasure and outrage at being treated like this. They need to hear harsh criticisms so they will think about doing a better job next time.


Seth August 12, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Geoff, I really do understand your frustration and respect the points you have made on this and other topics. You are certainly not wrong that the public has a right to know what is going on. And as I understand it, you also serve on the Peninsula Planning Board? So I have no doubt that you are very familiar with this type of process (although I don’t believe you guys have undergone a recent community plan update).

A few points of clarification…

A lot of the silliness of that meeting was due to requirements under state law, and that lent itself to a few quirks that can’t really be pinned on the City of SD. According to CEQA, they are essentially required to do an EIR for our plan update, and to hold these scoping meetings (as opposed to the ones where we actually talk about the plan update itself). As I am sure you know, EIRs usually apply to large-scale development “projects”, rather than plan updates. So there we were, talking about the possible impacts of a “project” that doesn’t exist, unable to distribute a plan update that is still in pre-final draft form.

Did that make it an “empty exercise”, as you stated at the meeting? Mostly yes, but a little bit no. There were plenty of speakers, be they encyclopedic wonks or local residents who just intuitively raised great points about their concerns, that gave the planners some helpful information about what the community wants in this EIR. Anything from, “I am worried about how a possible increase traffic would affect the quality of my air and water,” to “Increased density would adversely affect noise levels” to some of the more arcane stuff Landry cited. That’s what the planners were there to hear, again, as required by state law.

Should the public have had more notice about that meeting, and should it have all been more clear? Absolutely. The City and community leaders like myself can both take some of the blame for that, with a caveat that we don’t generally get the same turnouts for these things on this side of Froude as you guys do for your Board — I never figured so many people would even care to go to EIR scoping meeting.

It should also be stated that this scoping meeting was hardly the central part of the process. You yourself called it an empty exercise, after all. As to the meetings where the actual plan update is discussed, my understanding is that hundreds of people have attended them over the years, and provided extensive input. The subcommittee addressing the plan update even had writers from this blog on it until a few months ago. It’s not taking place under the cover of darkness. When the final draft is ready for public review (hopefully soon after the EIR process is completed), I am sure that there will plenty of notice given for what will be far more important public meetings.

Now, should the process of this plan update have taken 10 years? HELL NO. No one is happy about that, believe me. But it is a long process to begin with, as I am sure you know, and my understanding is that one of the primary delays was having to wait for the City’s General Plan update to finally go through. The wheels of bureaucracy are slow indeed.

As to the rezoning itself, I have little doubt that there will be plenty more discussion about this going forward. But it is really not my understanding at this point that it is going to lead to widespread densification, despite appearances. I will do more research on this and try to clarify further.


Geoff Page August 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Yes, I am on the Peninsula Community Planning Board, although I have always been at heart an OB person. I live, unfortunately, two blocks outside the OB planning board boundary. I was not there as a representative of the PCPB, which was why I did not state that affiliation. And, yes, I am familiar with the process.

Your first paragraph under “points of clarification” was very good, that would have been a good explanation for the City to provide to clear the air, but they did not. They kept talking about “the projedct,” which apparently did not exist.

I will still maintain it was an empty exercise because the comments provided by concerned residents were the same comments anyone in any of our neighborhoods would have when faced with a potential density increase of 1400 units. Nothing was mentioned that was unique to OB other than OB’s history of fighting this kind of thing.

The reason there was such a turnout was because of the rumored 1400 new residential units in OB, the turnout was not to comment on the EIR, not for most of the crowd I would venture. What I witnessed was confusion on the part of the audience about just what the meeting was about. The City representatives did nothing to clear the air. Kempton could have done so but chose to stay mum, as Isaid, he could just as easily have stayed home and saved our taxpayer money.

I was surprised to hear that the OB community plan had been in the works for 10 years, that is amazing. The Peninsula community plan is about 23 years old and we’ve been told there is no money to do the update. Now, I understand why so much money is needed, it is needed to support the glacially moving City.

De facto desnification has been taking place in the Peninsula, including OB, for years as the City allows illegal second units in RS 1-7 zoning. Guest quarters and companion units that are not to be rented out are routinely approved. The owners only have to sign a document to agree not to rent the units. As soon as inspection is over, a kitchen goes in and the units are rented. The City never set up an enforcement procedure and enforcement relies on concerned neighbors calling Code Enforcement. That process is a joke and there are no real penalties. That plus allowing conversion of garages, rooms labeled hobby rooms, studios, media rooms, etc, none of which appear in the Municipal Code, have transformed the single family housing zone into multi-family. Rest assured, zoning changes are next.


Terrie Leigh Relf August 13, 2011 at 7:20 pm

I’m curious as to where, specifically, these units will be built. Was that addressed at all?


Geoff Page August 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm

No, there were no details.


OB Dude August 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Next time the city shows up and acts like bumps on a log….ask them to leave!

I was not at this meeting but I do know that Mr. Kempton has been involved with OB/Penisula Planning for MANY years, he should know better and be embarassed to represent OB and the city and simply bring a tape recorder. Senseless!


Geoff Page August 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm

I have had the unfortunate oppportunity to deal with Mr. Kempton for a number of years now. His behavior that night was par for the course. I have yet to devine what value he provides the citizens of this City other than to support developers at every turn. OB should be very wary of him.


Landry Watson, OBPB Dist 1 August 16, 2011 at 8:43 am

Thanks to the OB Rag and Frank for the article and helping to keep the community aware of these meetings during the public process. I won’t spend much time here discussing the City’s efforts to ensure the community was informed of the meeting except to say that the process leaves much to be desired and certainly is one that could be assisted by the technology that almost all people agree is the recognized and accepted norm for “getting the word out”.

As for the purpose of the meeting, I could also feel the frustration from people at the meeting at not having a context in which to provide comments to the planners. Try as they did to explain the purpose of this EIR Scoping meeting, it still wasn’t readily apparent even to myself. Therefore, I tried to focus my comments on issues that I would want to see discussed in the EIR document that the City will be preparing as a requirement of our Precise Plan (community plan) update process to identify and address potential impacts of the “project” (the community plan) on the environment and specifically our community (OB).

Although there is a widely recognized template or format for all EIR documents, the community can help focus the consultant responses on specific issues to be addressed in that document OR…. at least document that we’ve requested specfic potential issues be addressed publicly through the EIR. Specifically, we should be highlighting any issues or existing conditions (quality of life) that may be affected by the “project” (community plan update).

My comments summarized:
* Urban Design and Community Identity — the OB community is an Emerging Historic Cottage District that shows specific architectural styles of the turn-of-the-century southern california beach community. Specifically, but not limited to, the California Bungalow and the American Craftsman Cottage. These architectural themes should be specifically recognized and addressed in the plan and the EIR should address the potential for these styles to be eliminated.
* Economic Prosperity — The economic engine of OB is directly tied to the amount of visitors we receive in our community. These visitors most specifically are attracted to our beaches and coastal areas. The EIR should address the direct connection of the economic engine of the community and any potential issue that might depreciate the desire of those visitors to come to OB. One specifically is water quality at our beaches causing beach closures.
* Public Facilities & Recreation — OB is currently recognized as underserviced in public facilities and recreational opportunities/spaces. The EIR should address how those depressed service level impacts can be improved/mitigated since the plan clearly indicates potential future increases in density.
* Water Quality and Hydrology — The trend in third party water quality testing for OB over the last 5 years has been negative. With time, our beaches are closing more and more often during rain events due to pollution and discharge (upstream). The EIR should address this negative trend in water quality at our beaches and watershed habitat areas. Additionally, the EIR should link this trend with our Economic Prosperity and discuss the impacts of continued beach closures.
* Cumulative Impacts — Impacts considered not significant by themselves but when combined together must be addressed are cumulative impacts. The EIR will have a tendency to focus on the “project” which is comprised specifically of the OB community plan update, but the EIR should NOT ignore the cumulative impacts of multiple community plan updates currently either in progress or known to be planned (Point Loma, Mission Beach, etc etc). The cumulative effects of these plans to our quality of life issues could be substantial and the EIR should address them and propose a mitigation strategy (not just shoo them away or dismiss them).

Note: the Notice of Preparation documents have been posted online at the City’s Website. Although they don’t provide a large amount of context, that shouldn’t preclude anyone from voicing their concerns or identifying specific issues we’d like addressed in the EIR. Comment period is OPEN until 26 August. Forms were passed out at the meeting but the planners indicated that no secific form is necessary.

Correspondence can be sent to Jeffrey Szymanski
City of San Diego
Enivronmental Analysis Division – Development Services Department
1220 First Avenue, MS-501
San Diego CA 92101

OR…… by email!!!!!

I encourage ALL of OB to get involved in the community plan update process and to let people hear your voice!


Mike James September 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm

In the fall of 1983 it came to the attention of the Ocean Beach Planning Board that certain large property owners and local Realtors had persuaded then Councilman Bill Cleator to silently put before the Council an amendment for the Ocean Beach Precise Plan. The amendment would have doubled Ocean Beach’s residential density from 25 units-per-acre to 52-units-per-acre.

Due the quick action of a few O.B. Activist, we were able to rally the community to stop any changes to the Plan. One element of our effort was a flyer I drafted that spoke of the disastrous effects of increasing the population of an already overtaxed infrastructure. We filled City Hall and stopped them in their tracks.

I think you find the following article from the San Diego Business Journal of interest with the current effort by city planners.

Semper Vigilatus,

Mike James

OB merchants, residents agree on growth plan
By Ted Woerner
November 7, 1983

Ocean Beach is a community in transition.

After more than a decade of bickering amongst its factionalized and diverse populace, a consensus solution to growth and development is emerging. Community and business leaders appear to agree that the landmark San Diego beach area indeed will remain a broad-based citizen collage.

The synthesis of business and social groups, and the feeling that Ocean Beach has leaped a great hurdle is due in large part to the passage last September of the community precise plan by the San Diego City Council and the Ocean Beach Planning Board. Not surprisingly, getting that far was not a simple process.

A last minute zoning controversy sent the precise plan process into stormy seas.

The debate centered on the proposal to increase residential density to 52 units per acre, rather than 25 units per acre that had been approved. The lesser density finally won out, but not before the factions in Ocean Beach did battle.

Large property owners and Realtors – led briefly by San Diego Councilman Bill Cleator, who represented the area – wanted the increased density. They claimed Ocean Beach would become a “ghetto” unless incentives to replace older homes with income-producing-properties.

But others in the community were incensed by the possibility of doubling the residential density just before the plan was voted upon by the City Council. They pointed to the city planning department statements that were critical of the 52 units-per-acre proposal.
But some shop owners believed that either zoning decision would be have resulted in a no-lose situation for the business community.

“It’s not that I wasn’t interested,” says merchant John Burdine, “but the way I saw it was that either I was going to have had a lot of people coming in and buying (if the higher allowable density had been approved). Or, I would have fewer people with more money coming in to buy.”

Burdine runs a stationary store on Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach’s main commercial thoroughfare, and the hub of single-owner enterprise. Burdine subscribes to the law of “unintended consequences.”

“If you look at what the community planners were saying 10 years ago, you would find it’s not very practical today,” said Burdine. “And if you look at the reasoning behind keeping the density lower and what will happen to a beach area – which is one of the more attractive places to live – when this plan is put in place, I think you might find something unintentional occurring.”

Translation: The prices for rental units and for home buyers will rise as the demand to the ocean increases, while the number of residential units available stays the same and fails to keep up with demand.

However proponents of the 25-units-per-acre proposal were well aware that fewer homes and apartments would in the long run push prices up as more people compete to live at the beach area. At the same time, the slower-growth advocates were also aware that property values would have jumped had the higher density plan been adopted.

Local planning board member and homeowner Rich Grosch wanted the lesser density, he has already worked within its restrictions. Two years ago, he bought a home on a 50-foot-by-140-foot lot for $116,000. Since then he has added a two-room townhouse and a studio apartment in the back for $50,000. The townhouse rents for $575, the studio for $300.

“ There were many people on my block – homeowners, not just renters – who were strongly behind the lower density proposal,” he said. “The plan is not a no-growth proposal – it’s a growth plan, or planned growth. It’s not laissez-fare. You have to consider the bad that comes along with the higher density; over-crowded schools, over-used sewage system, traffic, parking problems and over-crowded beaches.”

Grosch concedes rents are bound to rise but said his motives for backing the plan to preserve some of Ocean Beach’s character.” Some of the homes people are calling shacks I think of as quaint cottages. I’ll admit some have to go, but they shouldn’t be replaced by the big square boxes that are prevalent around here.”

Larry Kline does much of his Silvergate Reality’s business in the Ocean Beach area, and he is distressed by the density decision. “From a strictly business standpoint, if you can’t buy it, develop it and make money from it, then there’s no use doing it. So what you have is an instant slum; you can’t upgrade the property.”

Kline said that many property owners – primarily older people – had hoped that they would have made money from their property to have a cushion for retirement. “I think they’re owned what they lost. If I can only build four units where once they could build eight, I think they’re owed what they lost – four units,” said Kline. “I think people should have reasonable rental rates. The only way to do that is have the supply to meet the demand.”

A ‘case study’

But trying to meet demand with supply by dealing with existing structures and a community plan has its limits. Ocean Beach, as a result could be become a case study for development of an older community.

It is virtually an island, surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by Point Loma. There is only one main road into the area, and its streets were laid out more than 50 years ago. These two factors have resulted in a community that has limited space and a street-alley configuration that was not designed for its current use.

Councilman Bill Cleator was thinking about days gone by when he first pursued a density change from 25 units per acre to 52 acre. The lure if the beach brought Cleator and other young families to Ocean Beach years ago. Too, rents were low and housing was affordable.

Cleator said he initially thought additional apartment space would allow a new crop of young people to live near the ocean by increasing housing. But after examining the situation and with heavy lobbying from a vocal and well organized low density advocacy group, nostalgia gave way to imperatives.

“After I went down and walked through the area, talked with the people and examined the situation,” said Cleator, “I realized that Ocean Beach couldn’t handle the increase. I looked at the sewage system, looked at the elementary school (Ocean Beach Elementary). They’re darned-near meeting in closets now.”

Mike James – who along with his brothers runs a the James Gang beach wear store on Newport Avenue – is keenly aware of the space problems. As president of the Ocean Beach Merchants Association, he helped organize and was very vocal in the high-density opposition. Ironically, he understood that if more people were allowed in the area, he and his brothers might have made more money.

“If I wanted to live in a place with more people or run a business in a area with more people, I would move, he reasoned. “Ocean Beach is like a small town. There’s a real sense of community here that is worth preserving. If you had a lot of huge apartments, we might lose that. And it’s something we value.”

Others speak optimistically about Ocean Beach’s future. Excitedly, business-people say the merchant association grown form 50 members to 75 members in a year, has improved both planning dialog and the business climate.

“In terms of business – retail sales – you’ll see a great increase in the next 10 years,” said John Hensel, president of the Ocean Beach Town Council. “ Two things are happening: The positive image Ocean Beach has been trying to project the past five years is beginning to pay off. And second, there is development going on right now. If people are creative with their planning decisions, it can be enough; they just have to use what they have.”


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