Planning Commission Approves OB Plan Update But With New Language that Guts its Teeth on Variances

by on May 30, 2014 · 49 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Ocean Beach, Organizing, Politics, San Diego

It was embarrassing to observe how the Planning Commission coddled one single property owner while gutting key language regarding variances

By Frank Gormlie

On Thursday, May 29, for nearly two hours, the Ocean Beach Community Plan Update was before the San Diego Planning Commission sitting in the City Council chambers.  After having a staff presentation, listening to public comments pro and con, and their own questions and issues, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the Update. However, they approved the Plan with two modifications whose ramifications are not clear.

Despite proclamations of support from OB community groups, and a “united front” of the OB Town Council with the veteran OB planners who sat on the sub-committee and who worked with the City staff for years, the manner in which a single property owner was seemingly coddled by the Commission was actually downright embarrassing to observers, as he was treated with deference as the “leader” of the “opposition” compared to how the planning leaders were treated.

Plan Comn 5-29-14 group

Gretchen Newsom, Gio Ingolia, former city planner Maxx Stalhim, Pete Ruscitti, and Valerie Paz, all at SD Planning Commission hearing on OB Plan – May 29, 2014. (all photos by Frank Gormlie)

By time the agenda of the Planning Commission reached the OB Plan,  it was before 10:00 a.m. on the 12th floor of City Hall.  There was about a dozen people from OB. The OB planners, Gio Ingolia, Mindy Pellesier, Peter Ruscitti, and Andrew Waltz huddled with Gretchen Newsom and Marin of the Town Council. A few people orbited a David Stebbins, who sat in the back of the large chambers room.

Once staff settled into their seats, Planning Director Bill Fulton took the mike and introduced the Plan Update as part of a Process 5 Hearing. Fulton spoke of the long-established goals of the small town neighborhood. “Ocean Beach”, he said, “is one of those neighborhoods we think of as a village.” It has 700+ acres, he added, but most development occurred a century ago.

Fulton then turned to long-time OB-City staffer Teresa Millette who did the heavy lifting, taking the Commission through her presentation, aided by graphs and maps and lists.  (The staff report – as a power-point presentation – is here.)  The staff certainly recommended that the Commission approve it and send it along to the real politicos – the City Council.

Plan Comn 5-29-14 Teresa

City planner Teresa Millette gives presentation; Bill Fulton, her boss, sits to her right.

Millette said the OB Plan with the update is consistent with the City’s General Plan.  (This had been the goal all along of City planning staff, for over a decade.)  There is no planned increase in density or intensity, she said. (Although, she admitted later in the hearing, that there are projections of 60-some units being built in OB over the next decade.)

She pushed the community’s goal: preserve the coastal village character of OB. There is a “re-designation”, Millette said, of 2 commercial areas, mainly a semantics issue, changing them from “neighborhood commercial” to “community commercial”.  One of the them is the commercial area along Point Loma Avenue in south OB. The new designation means the district is really a community-wide commercial area and not just an immediate-neighborhood serving one. (Among the “opposition” no one spoke up against this issue – as they had at a Planning Board meeting awhile ago.)

She stayed briefly on several points. There is a re-zone, Millette continued, of 99 parcels that were inconsistent with the overall Plan – mainly up on the hill next to the Peninsula. Plus, there are 72 units in a voluntary Historic Cottage district.  She spoke of the park equivalencies -( an issue that deserves closer look by planning activists at some point in the future) and the Commissioners seemed okay with how City staff had parlayed a deficient in OB of parks per human to a lesser degree.

Then Millette hit one of the key controversies of the hearing – the “v” word – variances. There had been a history of variances granted, she explained, that had raised big concerns within the community.  Language had originally been drafted – that, however, had upset some property owners along the infamous 5100 block of West Pt Loma, and had been modified – and the modification was included in the Staff report.  (More on that.)

Teresa ended her formal presentation by announcing that the Plan is expected – if approved by the Commission – to go before the full City Council on June 30 and then to the Coastal Commission sometime this Fall.

Chair Golba then opened up for public comment, taking the supporters first.

This writer was called first and I spoke about the many workshops and community meetings held over the last 10 to 12 years of the update process for community feedback and input; I was chair of the OB Planning Board when that process first started.

Pete Ruscitti – Chair of OB Planning Board – addresses the Commission.

Pete Ruscitti was next, as the current Chair of the Planning Board. He spoke to the variances issue.  “Variances themselves,” he said, “are not in conflict with the Community Plan. Variances to the FAR should be for unique cases,” and finished by saying he was proud of the Plan and the broad community consensus it represented.

Plan Comn 5-29-14 gio

Co-Chair of Plan Update sub-committee Gio Ingolia.

One of the chairs of the OB sub-committee on the Update, Gio Inglio, then listed all the different OB community groups that have expressed support for the Update.  He spoke of the history of OB’s FAR (floor area ratio). “A FAR of .7 is sacred ground to us,” he stated, referring to the historic restrictions on development in the beach area.

The other co-chair, Mindy Pellesier was up next.  “Every group has endorsed the Plan. They want to retain the small character of the community,” she said.  Then she gushed:

“We want to be different. People want OB to be different. We are very eclectic and to bring the various parties to agreement speaks highly of OB.”

Then Gretchen Newsom, the President of the OB Town Council, read their resolution in support of the Update. Another planner, Andrew Waltz, spoke, saying that the opposition was not heard during all the workshops.

Plan Comn 5-29-14 Gretch

Gretchen Newsom, head of the OB Town Council.

Those who were opposed to the Plan or parts of it then had their turn at the microphone.

John Duma was first. He supports the Plan but objects to “the anti-variance language” in it, he said. And he asked the Commission to take it out.

Here, was the first public exposure of what the opposition  called the “anti-variance language”. Unless you were really keyed in to the Plan and its components, and hep to the issues, this could have easily gone over your head.  What exactly is being referred to here?  What was Duma – and later – other opponents talking about?

Okay, here we have to step back and take a breather.

One of the major issues within planning in OB of late has been the threat of gentrification. Particularly in northwest OB and particularly along the 5100 block of West Pt Loma Avenue.  A few property owners of old duplexes have torn them down and constructed much larger, 3 storied one-family residences that exceed the “sacred” FAR of .7 for that neighborhood.

And they were able to achieve this by having variances granted to them by City staff – variances that were opposed by the OB Planning Board – which allowed the owners to then build larger buildings than they would have if they had adhered to the OB Precise Plan – the formal name of the community plan.

Hence the issue. The Planning Board even contested decisions of the Planning Commission when some of the owners on that block appealed the Board’s decisions. Many on the Board and within the community felt these variances were improper and improperly granted. The municipal code spells out how variances are achieved – and they are supposed to be very unique and exceptional.

Mindy Pellessier – Co-Chair – addresses the Commish.

But these property owners along the 5100 block were all getting the same variances and – all three of them so far – were all allowed to construct their large homes that were obviously out of scale with the immediate neighborhood, plus together the buildings presented a wall of concrete to the community instead of ocean views.

So, during the current re-write of the new Plan Update, language was inserted that spoke of this controversy over the variances.  And here is the pertinent part of the original text:

“There are no special circumstances or conditions applying to properties in the multi-family designated areas of Ocean Beach that do not apply generally to to other properties in the RM-2-4 zone. 

While the .7 FAR is unique to Ocean Beach, strict application of the regulations would not deprive a property owner of reasonable use of the land, and granting of variances to increase allowable FAR in the RM-2-4 zone would adversely affect the Ocean Beach Community Plan.”

What this attempted to do was to explain that even under the unique FAR of .7 in the zone in question – near the coast -, “strict application of the regulations” –  the Community Plan – a home owner could still build a worthy and liveable house within a “reasonable use of  the land”. Then it adds that the granting of variances to get around the zone requirements “would adversely affect” the OB Plan.

Do you see where the language was taking a stand against unworthy variances? The community through their elected Planning Board was telling it like it is – the City grant of variances in question have  adversely affected OB and quickened the slide into a full gentrification onslaught.

But the property owners howled.  They must have as the City told the OB planners that even this language had to be changed. So the sub-committee and the OB Planning Board leadership agreed to new language that deleted any negative reference to “variances”.

The new – new language stated:

“… In response to the community’s concerns about neighborhood character and overall desire to maintain Ocean Beach’s established character, additional policies were include in the Urban Design Element – Residential Neighborhood Recommendations. (See Policies 4.2.1-4.2.9) These policies are intended to achieve transitions in scale between existing structures and new infill development.”

It goes on, but nothing adverse about variances. And it is quite watered down.  But the watered down language wasn’t even that strong in the first place.

The new language referred one to “Policies 4.2.1 – 4.2.9” of the Plan.  And the language of the last one, 4.2.9 had some interesting text that added teeth to the Plan:

“4.2.9  Maintain the community’s small-scale character and avoid exceptions to established floor area ratios to the greatest extent possible under the law.”

An asterisk on the last word “law” simply explained: “Existing regulations specify FAR’s of 0.7 ….for the RM-2-4 … zone….”

So it was the “new” revised re-write that was before the Commission on Thursday, not the former language that spoke badly of variances.  Yet when the opposition took the mic, it was as if the former language was still included.

After John Duma, Mark Rose got up at the mic; he was opposed to the “anti-variance language” and told the Commission he was an owner for 20 years on that block.

Plan Comn 5-29-14 Stebbin

David Stebbins, leader of the “opposition”

Next came the spokesman for the opposition, David Stebbins. Stebbins was the first home owner on the 5100 block of West Pt Loma to have  variances granted in order to construct his 3 story. At least two others have followed his path – despite the restrictions on variances in that they have to be “exceptions”; if everybody gets one – how are they “exceptions”?

Stebbins, an attorney, is a polished public speaker. He told his side of the variance story with ease, drama, and as he has a habit of telling little anecdotes, he told another story of meeting a couple out walking their dog and them telling him how much they loved his house.  He told the City Council committee the same story the day he spoke in front of them.  This day he told it again.

Stebbins had become aware of the language referring to variances and he complained. His complaints begot results as the original language was changed. The watered down version was inserted.

“Everybody who is speaking against the Plan,” he asserted, “on West Pt Loma are property owners.”  Then he swung wildly, “The OB Planning Board does not represent all of Ocean Beach.”

He then went on to declare that the language at issue was “almost unprecedented” in a community plan, that it “takes away property rights.” In correspondence to the Commission, he even had kindly offered new language to insert instead of  the revisions.  Several people had given Stebbins their minutes at the podium, so he was able to take his time.  In comparison, all the proponents of the Plan seemed rushed in their brief speeches.

After a short recess, Chair Golba asked staff to address “the elephant in the room” – the controversy surrounding the variance language.  Department head Fulton took the helm. He explained that the original Update language on the variances was “stricken out”, and agreed that “the previous language pre-empted the variance process, but is now deleted.” He made assurances that property rights are protected with the new text, that it was however “taking into concern the number of variances granted.” The new language addresses all of OB, he said.

Plan Comn 5-29-14 Comn close

San Diego Planning Commissioners: James Whalen, Anthony Wagner, Susan Peerson, Theresa Quiroz, Douglas Austin, Stephen Haasse; chair Tim Golba is out of view.

Comments from the Commission were opened.  Anthony Wagner was the first Commissioner. He was interested in the public facilities financing plan and wanted to know how high developer impact fees had increased – as a potential funding source as the community is built out. That’s when Teresa Millette admitted that the community is not expected to have much more build-out, but she estimated that staff sees about 62 units being developed in OB over the next decade.

Wagner was also the only commissioner to raise the park equivalencies issue, but on a tangent issue to actually developing more parkland for OB. He did state that the new variance language should satisfy the concerns of the speakers, and ended with this flourish:

“Eclectic Ocean Beach has their quality of life protected.”

Commissioner James Whalen was up next. He’s lived in OB for 26 years – he actually lives just up the hill in the Peninsula, but considers it OB. His concerns were capturing storm water, particularly in Ocean Beach and Point Loma, where the “urban slobber”  pollutes the ocean and causes cliff erosion.

Whalen made the motion to approve the Plan Update. The second was provided by Commissioner Susan Peerson.

The second by Peerson was a curious move as when it came time for her to speak, she was very critical of the Plan, especially so-called view corridors along Froude Street.  Peerson stated that she also lived near OB – which means she lives up the hill. Her point was that by declaring “scenic overlooks” or view corridors, they could be used to adversely – in her mind – control future development in OB.

Her issue: scenic overlooks needed clear definitions and were not the same as the public view from Dog Beach. She definitely was not supportive of the scenic overlooks on Froude. She wants to remove all the “view cones” references on that street in the Plan. It really sounded like she had taken a personal interest in the issue, and perhaps wants to build a 3 story on her lot at some point in the near future.

On the variances issue, she stated:

“I was supportive of all those variances (on West Point Loma Ave.). The redevelopment on West Pt Loma is a good thing.”

She expressed her concern that a homeowner wanting to build a 2 or 3 story house next to a one story house would need a variance.  Peerson then targeted Section 4.2.9 of the proposed Plan Update.

And in general, this section left several Commissioners with – as they said – “heartburn” and “grief”.

Several policies were included in the Plan by staff, and the sections 4.2 are Residential Neighborhood Recommendations. But 4.2.9 sat like a needle in the collective craw of the Commission. Hardly anyone liked that language – especially the last phrase “to the greatest extent possible under the law.”

Commissioner Stephen Haass didn’t like 4.2.9 either. He had concerns on how to maintain the OB community character by using a FAR that is lower than city-wide. This could lead to more variances, he said.

Then Theresa Quiroz, the next Commissioner, spoke. “I’m with the community on this on,” she said.  “It’s good for OB staff to know clearly what the community wants. Obviously, people have the right to ask for a variance,” she said.  “OB has so much character and needs to keep that character if they want to.”

Quiroz sounded very positive. Her real concern was with the rise of sea levels due to climate change, and that staff recommendations on the issue only called for monitoring.  She felt something else was needed. “OB is too important to the city. I won’t approve the Plan until the City does more than watch,” she declared – giving members of the audience some heartburn.

But Ms. Bragado of the Planning Department responded and allayed her fears as the City does indeed have a climate action plan.  “We put into the Plan the best information we have,” she said.

Quiroz answered:

“I’d like to see more adamancy to keep Ocean Beach safe with respect to climate change.”

 The Commissioner wants to get money for OB when the sea level rises.

Next to speak was the Chair, Tim Golba. Again more grief due to section 4.2.9; Golba wanted staff to delete the last phrase – as the entire section, he felt, caused a predisposition against variances. Then, Golba turned to the audience and said: “I would love to hear from you, Mr. Stebbins,” and that point Stebbins made his second appearance at the mic.  Golba wanted to know whether Stebbins liked the “new, revised” language, and Golba asked him if it “was more acceptable.” Stebbins was then allowed to ramble on, emphasizing the points he had made earlier.

At one point, Stebbins declared that the entire section of 4.2.9 should be deleted. Sure, why should the Commission emphasize maintaining the small-scale character of OB.

At this point, I was somewhere between shock and a feeling of embarrassment. Golba did not ask the OB community leaders if they liked the new language, nor did  he allow anyone to dispute or respond to anything that Stebbins was stating. Perhaps Golba knew that the OB planners had already accepted the new language and was focusing on Stebbins as “the leader of the opposition”.

But the deference shown Stebbins was staggering. Especially in relation to how the actual leaders in OB were treated.

A single-property owner had then been elevated higher than anyone else in OB, as the Commissioners literally coddled the aged lawyer with a polished tongue who had appeared before them when his own house was up on appeal to obtain variances – which were granted and approved by the Commission a few years ago. His views were more important than anyone else, it seemed.

And to provide gist for the mill, Commissioner Douglas Austin was “concerned with the points raised by Mr. Stebbins”, and stated that in order for him to support the motion, 4.2.9 would be dropped – or its last sentence, and his concerns also for view corridors had to be addressed.

Commissioner Haass then offered new “compromise language” for 4.2.9, and agreed that definitions were needed referring to elevated views and non-elevated views.

Two friendly amendments were accepted by Whalen, the maker of the original motion, having to do with the new compromised language and new language regarding view corridors.  (The friendly amendments were not read into the record at this point, so audience members were not explicitly clear on what they said.)

And then to the surprise of us all, the Commissioners voted – and voted unanimously to send the OB Plan Update with the two modifications to the City Council – and the hearing was over.

After the hearing, the OB Rag received some statements from the OB planners expressing their disappointment and concerns with the Commission’s ruling.  In an email from Ingolia, Gio stated:

“The FAR/Variance language that’s in our community plan was approved and amended by the City Attorney’s Office. Today’s “recommended” changes proved once again that the Planning Commission is committed to weakening our .7 FAR in order to allow the increase in Bulk and Scale in Ocean Beach. It was a real disappointment.”

 Pete Ruscitti, OB Planning Board head, also stated:

“I’m concerned that the revision recommended by the Planning Commission will significantly weaken the language on variances that was previously agreed upon by our community groups, city staff and the City Attorney’s office.

Several commissioners even said in deliberations that they believed OB’s 0.7 FAR was too low. This certainly seems to indicate that the Planning Commission will have no problem granting future variances to allow even more homes in OB to exceed the size limits set by the Municipal Code – limits that have been crucial to maintaining our community’s small-scale character for nearly 40 years.”

If all the Commission wants is to have OB’s Plan integrated into the City’s General Plan and to do away with the tools OB uses to maintain the “small scale character of OB” – despite the fact that just about every Commissioner claimed they loved the community’s character – then let them say so.

The OB Community Plan dates to 1976. Many of the current commissioners were barely teething back then. And now for them to attempt to unravel over a quarter of century of OB urban planning would be like standing in front of a tsunami of community anger and disgust.

If this is the beginning of the Commission’s efforts to drastically change OB’s coastal FAR of 0.7, then they  had better get their ducks lined up, as they will have stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Village of OB, that will swirl around them worst than a July 4th marshmallow fight.

Meeting Called for Monday, June 2nd by OB Planners

Partially in response to the views stated by the Planning Commission and to organize how to attend the City Council meeting on the Plan at the end of June, the sub-committee of OB planners are calling for a meeting on Monday, June 2nd, at 6pm at Dog Beach Dog Wash at 4933 Voltaire Street.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

OB Joe OB Joe May 30, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Hey, where was Ed Harris – OB’s councilman? You did not mention his presence at the hearing. Perhaps he was trying to figure out why he wasn’t invited to the Faulconer/Zapf shindig down at the OB skateboard park honoring Tony Hawk.

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TR May 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Are you talking about West Point Loma Blvd or Point Loma Ave? Both have had homes torn down and replaced with eyesores.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm

West Pt Loma Ave is the frontline in OB’s battle with gentrification.

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Aging Hippie May 30, 2014 at 1:05 pm

If I had an ocean or river view (I don’t), even an obstructed one, and a neighbor built a McMansion that blocked it and changed the appearance of the entire area, my next recourse could well be litigation against the agency that granted a variance that significantly reduced the value of my property.

Perhaps a class action against the commission by all those affected by the 3 McMansions in the 5100 block of WPL would help the commissioners change their attitudes? You know, fight lawyers with lawyers?

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Geoff Page May 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Great account, Frank.

Having made several attempts to influence decisions by the Planning Commission via appeals, none of this surprises me at all. When you look at who sits on the Commission and what they do for a living, it is not surprising.

But, as I wrote some time back when the plan was touted by Maxx Stalheim, all of this is academic because the community plans are not made a part of the Municipal Code. The Development Services reviewers never even refer to them. Projects go to the Planning Commission or City Council denied by a local planning board because the project violates the community plan and are routinely approved over those objections. None of the language versions about variances would overcome this. The city loves development because of the fees and taxes it brings in and they will bend over backward to accommodate anyone who wants a variance. The very existence of the Stebbins property is glaring example of this.

What everyone needs to do is hold the City’s feet to the fire and make them enforce the existing rules regarding variances, which they stretch like silly putty into any shape that will allow the variances. I think Cory Briggs would come in handy here.

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Daniel Bille May 30, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Frank,

Outstanding presentation and thorough analysis of the events. As a brief aside, you stood up at my first OB council meeting and thanked the members of the Town Council for their selfless work to preserve the community volunteering their own time and energy. It is thanks to them, you and those who went before us that we have inherited the preserved OB we see today. Thank you for fighting to keep it whole. Thank you for educating the public about this very important local issue.
Let me ask one question that bothers me: I understood that if a person were to construct a 2nd or 3rd story the neighborhood code (not sure if it is a local or state ordinance) states that you must get the approval of your neighbors so as not to restrict their view? I know I should research this myself, but the idea of someone constructing a 3 story monster where there used to be a 1 story shack seems shocking in the face of variances. Am I to understand that variances will be granted to only those that have the wealth to spend and the time to exert the effort required? That does strike me as elitist and undemocratic if only an elite few can break the rules in the face of a majority of owners. Does OB now have a target painted on West Point Loma as somewhere you can buy a junk shack for pennies and build your mansion on it knowing that enough money to the city will insure your developmental success? La Jolla has beautiful houses on the beach, but those beaches are empty because the areas are closed off from the public. OB’s beaches are rich in people and dogs, perhaps because the homes are simple and small?

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Geoff Page May 30, 2014 at 2:13 pm

I can answer the view question. There is nothing in the San Diego Municipal Code that protects views across private property. The only protected views are public streets. Del Mar was one of the first cities to add protection of private views to its laws because they had a number of big battles between neighbors there. I believe one or two other cities in the county also have this protection, but not the City of San Diego. And, I have seen home owner after homeowner build homes that block neighbors views with no consideration at all. Homes can be designed to preserve some of a neighbor’s view but it rarely actually happens.

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John June 1, 2014 at 4:28 am

You’re right about the fundamentals, individual views aren’t protected at all but to add clarification it’s not just public streets but due to its location in the Coastal Development Plan there are hurdles on the state level regarding “public views” of scenic coastal areas (from public properties such as parks and paths) For instance it’s been pointed out that property owners in the 5178, 5180, etc addresses, all the way down to the 2 story apt building, will likely never get a 3 story build approved because public views from standing on the jetty path toward the pier and down Point Loma would be blocked.
A little research finds this declaration on one of the projects:
” THE PROPOSED COASTAL DEVELOPMENT WILL NOT ENCROACH UPON
ANY EXISTING PHYSICAL ACCESSWAY THAT IS LEGALLY USED BY THE
PUBLIC OR ANY PROPOSED PUBLIC ACCESSWAY IDENTIFIED IN A LOCAL
COASTAL PROGRAM LAND USE PLAN; AND THE PROPOSED COASTAL
DEVELOPMENT WILL ENHANCE AND PROTECT PUBLIC VIEWS TO AND
ALONG THE OCEAN AND OTHER SCENIC COASTAL AREAS AS SPECIFIED IN
THE LOCAL COASTAL PROGRAM LAND USE PLAN. ”
The four built/being built apparently do not impact public views in that aspect, (and their coastal commission permits required photos to prove this!) however it should be noted that future projects may be blocked at the coastal commission stage by a number of angles-(pun intended) that you might not immediately think of if they stand in between a public space like a park or path and a scenic coastal view.

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Daniel Bille May 30, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Ah, thank you Geoff. Another example of “read the rules” not “someone told me the rules said XYZ”. I will have to educate myself on this.

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Aging Hippie May 30, 2014 at 2:41 pm

I think that if these variances had not been granted, the 3 houses in question would never have been built, instead they would have painted and flipped the existing houses on the properties.

Maybe there is no recourse for the people in the 5100 WPL area who have suffered a loss of property value (or other less measurable losses) due to this gentrification. If true, it means that OB will eventually succumb entirely to gentrification, and lose its character, regardless of what plans are made or approved or submitted, and the entire process is an exercise in futility.

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Daniel Bille May 30, 2014 at 2:56 pm

I’m sorry to hear that Mr. Hippie. In my experience, it is better to participate and build a solution than to surrender and give up on a problem. Everyone can complain, but no one benefits until someone (or a group) finds an answer. West Point Loma has a gentrification problem. The attempt to solve this didn’t work. What else can we try that might work?

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Another Anonymous Neighbor May 30, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I suppose you’re right, it’s just frustrating to watch plutocracy overcome democracy, especially this close to home.

I suggest that we seek designation as a historic area for the period from 1955 – 1975 with the flavor of a “seaside village”. This would allow the town council to veto any permit for development.

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gristmiller May 30, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Good move!

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Daniel Bille May 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Now you are talking… a working answer.

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John May 30, 2014 at 9:57 pm

The variance makes it financially feasible to construct the house in the first place, so there may be some truth in your speculation- the bank would never finance a 1350 sq. ft build at $450k (plus the cost of the lot and old structure, what Stebbins told me his build cost with permits) but if it’s 1750 sq. ft the value is then appropriate, and the build cost isn’t going to change that much between the two.
I personally believe this concept is what property owners are expressing as their “rights” to use their properties- the right to build a house worth building at all.
One misconception that persists is that the variance is the cause of these new dwellings being 3 stories or out of character with the neighborhood. Doubtful. Three stories is within the existing precise plan and I have a hard time imaging that these structures would be any less imposing at 1350 sq ft as they are at 1750 sq ft.
The old structures are termite ridden, full of rot and mildew because all have been waist high under flood waters several times in their existence- so they do have to go. It’s unrealistic to expect replacement structures to echo what was being built in the 1950’s, isn’t it?
OB is changing, like it or not, and I think the number one reason is the virtual silence of air traffic nowadays. For various reasons- quiet power plant technologies, altered climb out rates allowed by higher performance aircraft, and the reduction in air traffic after 9/11, that mind rattling roar we used to hear every 5 minutes has for all practical purposes, vanished.
Maybe it’s difficult to admit the reason OB was a funky eclectic village was not because some people wanted it that way but because we were in the flight path of a major airport.

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OB Dude May 31, 2014 at 9:51 am

“virtual silence of air traffic nowadays” + “vanished”

You can’t possibly be serious! I will pay for your hearing examination :-)

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Tyler May 31, 2014 at 11:25 am

Seriously. Maybe the noise has gone down in South OB, but over here in D2 we still hear them loud and clear. In fact, since the new terminal opened with 20something more gates, there has been a clear increase in the amount of flights taking off.

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John May 31, 2014 at 3:10 pm

How long have you lived in OB? In the mid ’80’s it was a roar, they called it the “OB pause” because if you were on the phone you had to suspend the conversation until the plane passed.
This is not really a subjective opinion I’m offering, it would not be hard to research the exact models of planes being operated, and the difference in noise output between them and their 1980’s counterparts- as well as look at the altered climb out procedures carriers now have to take, as well as compare the number of daily departures.
You’re simply doubting without an logical argument- that’s your right but it’s not really valid.

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Jon June 1, 2014 at 10:18 am

Yeah, it’s still called the OB pause. That didn’t stop in the 80’s. I also call it the OB alarm clock. Along with the parrots, it’s the FedEX jumbo jets blasting off as close as they can to morning flight time. Those suckers are LOUD. Squack, squawk, vroom, vroom… I don’t know if I’m living in the tropics or at LAX. I will concede that the planes are probably a bit less noisy as the earlier models. But the OB Pause lives on…

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Aging Hippie May 31, 2014 at 11:20 am

Yeah, welcome to La Jolla South, previously known as Ocean Beach.

If we were a designated historic area, it would be reasonable to require them to build something that suits the character of the area, not a monstrosity that belongs out in El Cajon.

We have to pause midsentence during most conversations to allow the deafening roar of the aircraft flying directly over the house to subside.

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objamie May 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Please fix the erroneous title of the article.

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Debbie May 30, 2014 at 7:09 pm

What’s erroneous about it?

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Pedro May 30, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Please correct me if I’m wrong but the variances granted to the three homes on W. Point Loma pertain to §131.0446 of the LDC and were for a unique property of the RM-2-4 zoning that state that 25% of the built FAR has to be reserved for parking.. That rule, from what I can tell, was written to encourage enclosed parking for structures within this zone. As those homes utilize carports instead of garages the variance was then granted, excluding the carport from the FAR, and not needing to adhere to the 25% rule – a rule that’s seldom found in other zones throughout the city. These houses are then a maximum of 1,750 sf. (2,500 sf. * 0.7) vs the max of 1,312.5 sf. (2,500 sf * 0.7 * 0.75) that they would be limited to without the variance.

The city is seldom allowing an actual FAR increase without some form of incentive program (affordable housing, accessibility). This squabble is grasping at straws. What OB needs to maintain its character is to have a zoning designation that allows the kind of development it wants… and FAR is not the biggest sticking point. Every single 25×100 or 25×140 lot in OB flies in the face of RM-2-4 in not conforming with the current zoning which stipulates a minimum lot size of 6,000 sf. and allows for one dwelling unit for every 1,750 sf. Yet every beach cottage in the cottage historical district is a duplex on a 2,500 sf. lot. With the added luxury of two parking spaces – one per unit… in the beach impact area!

The zoning should reflect that. Yet no one is considering reducing the minimum lot size to 2,500 and density to to one unit per every 1,250 sf.

If OB wants to keep its character and remain relatively affordable it’s not going to be able to do so without addressing density. It’s going to need to make it more attractive for a developer to be able to put multiple units on a 25×100 lot instead of a single family residence.

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Dave Rice May 30, 2014 at 11:29 pm

Hey Frank, is the original stuccoed turdpile builder’s name Steffin, Stebbins, or or Steppins? Or are these three different people who spoke?

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 31, 2014 at 9:42 am

“Stebbins” – thanks Dave – I fixed all the misspellings. If we had the resources for a proof reader, this wouldn’t happlen. (haha – that last misspelling was intentional)

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Jay May 31, 2014 at 8:26 am

Having recently bought a property in OB I have to say the FAR seems very restrictive especially when you factor in that 25% of it has to be covered parking. I plan on adding units when I can afford to and I doubt that the covered parking will actually be used for cars. I think the variances are justified as long as they have legit reasons like a lack of alley access, etc. Gentrification is coming regardless of variances and it isn’t always an awful thing. People including your family members will need places to rent and buy in the coming years and it only makes sense to add units and living space where possible in OB. It’s called urban infill and it’s better than adding new homes in wildlife habitat. This should be a no- brainer for a community of old hippies. Relax- no one can go over 30 in height and the variances that will be granted aren’t going to turn your little town into Miami. Focus on keeping out the chain stores should be your main concern if you want to keep the feel of OB the same in the coming years, not worrying about someone wanting a variance for an additional bedroom on a substandard lot they’ve owned for years. People of thee world, relax!

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 31, 2014 at 9:51 am

Jay – you keep referring to “you” and “your” – as you have not yet integrated being an OBcean into your persona – even as you have bought property here. Was OB saved for people like you – someone who can afford to “plan on adding units”? So you think the FAR is too restrictive? I advise you to read the muni code on variances; they are supposed to be unique and under exceptional circumstances. An “exceptional circumstance” is not allowing you to squeeze as many units onto your tiny lot as possible just so you can make profits.

As to gentrification, you may be correct. I advise everyone who thinks gentrification is okay to take a gander at Mission Beach and Venice up in LA. Venice was like OB, a “hippie town” although 3 times as large back in the Seventies. Fast forward to today and check out Venice. No longer a hippie town. Many of the old historic canals which gave it character have been filled in to allow McMansions. Venice lost its soul. Will OB lose its soul? Some believe it already has.

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Aging Hippie May 31, 2014 at 11:28 am

^ This.

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Tyler May 31, 2014 at 11:36 am

I’d rather have new home builds with young liberal minded families that at least stay within the height limit and FAR than run-down trash ridden units occupied by people who half the time don’t actually care about OB, they just want to keep their own familiarity alive. If I’m a property owner, I’d rather have a nice new/redone quaint home next door than one that’s falling apart, has landscaping that hasn’t been tended to in 8 years, and there’s a 34 year old rusting car parked on the lawn. In my opinion, slight gentrification and progression is one thing that actually may be a saving grace for OB. Shit just ain’t the same, or maybe it’s the same as it ever was?

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Marc Snelling Marc Snelling May 31, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Where are these rundown trash ridden properties in OB with old cars on the lawn?
Ive never seen anything like that. The young liberal minded families are moving away not moving in. Its conservative single people with money who are moving in.

Its been my experience that people living in older units not expensive new ones are the people who actually come out and volunteer in the community. Its not David Stebbins suit wearing Bluetooth types doing beach cleanups, library rallies, OB Historical Society and such.

How much community feel is there in Mission Beach during spring break with so many vacation rentals? Great playground for trust fund kids, but they are there to party and leave, not build a community. OB only had to look across the river to see what gentrification looks like. Its no saving grace.

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Seth May 31, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Great recap, Frank, and thanks to all who attended. Many strong comments here as well.

Speaking as a private citizen, I think there are a number of issues here beyond blanket terms such as “property rights” or “gentrification”. Property owners have the right to develop their properties within the bounds of the codes that everyone else has to adhere to, and hopefully, with strong consideration to policy documents such as the OB Precise Plan. Understand that while some of this is discretionary, this code is the *law* and not some arbitrary guideline to follow. Whether or not one likes the 0.7 FAR with 25% dedicated to enclosed parking or finds it too restrictive is about as relevant as thinking a 0.08 blood-alcohol content is too low for one to get a DUI.

The variance process exists to address special circumstances, and not to provide an end-around for some to buy their way out of the law. In other parts of this zone in OB, property owners have met the requirement for the 25% of FAR for enclosed parking by putting it all or partially underground. With a finished floor 6 feet or more below, it is not included in the FAR calculation and provides the property owner with more options within their “buildable space” that is otherwise largely defined by setbacks and the 30-foot height requirement. Whether that is a great idea in a coastal area that will likely face sea level rise and increased flooding is debatable, but it is something allowed within the existing code, aka law.

The homeowners in question are not eligible for this type of underground parking arrangement because they are in a floodplain. Not an arbitrary one resulting from a lack of municipal infrastructure, as Mr. Stebbins recently wrote in a letter to City Council, but an officially-designated FEMA Zone A floodplain – one that has determined that there is a 1% annual chance these properties will experience flooding during major storm events from either the San Diego River or Pacific Ocean. As an aside, considering that this floodplain was determined from 1978 data that did not really take climate change into account, it’s probably much higher than a 1% annual risk.

These property owners have argued that because of this, and because they have officially-designated “substandard-sized” lots of 6,000 sqft or less that lack alley access, that the FAR code/law is more restrictive to them than to others within the same zone. There is some degree of merit to this argument, to be sure. Some of the property owners have been vocal about threatening litigation, which I believe the City takes quite seriously, and is motivating them granting these variances to a large degree.

But here’s the thing… the same conditions that exist on these properties (substandard lot in a floodplain with no alley access), exist for another 100-200 parcels in that same zone and part of OB. The City has also granted a recent FAR variance for a property on Cable and Niagara that is substandard with no alley access, and not in the floodplain, conditions which exist for another 400 or so parcels in OB.

Using the variance process in this manner is no longer addressing special circumstances as intended, but systematically setting up precedent for up to 600 property owners within a square mile of each other to buy their way out of the rules that everyone plays by, which again, are law. Personally, it is hard for me to fathom another context where this would be legally acceptable. To revisit my previous analogy, if you get a 0.10 on the breathalyzer, can you offer the court $2,000 to drop the case because it’s only a “little bit” illegal?

If putting language into the community plan that is predisposed against granting future variances isn’t the means to address this issue, I can understand that. If the solution lies in some sort of compromise that clarifies the zoning code in an equitable manner than prevented homeowners from having to jump through all these hoops at their own expense, I can understand that too.

But what I think the decision-makers need to understand here is that enforcing your own laws is not an arbitrary or discretionary process. Even accounting for the gray areas of land development and variances, what is being done here has little to do with addressing special circumstances, and equates to a de facto rezone and skirting of the existing law by those who can afford to pay the City for it. This is almost certainly completely illegal, and it if takes going above their heads with a well-chosen and well-crafted citizens lawsuit that reminds them of their obligation to enforce the law of the land, that’s probably what needs to happen here.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 31, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Seth, please allow us to repost this as an article.

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Seth May 31, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Go for it. Appreciate your work in bringing attention to this and all other development issues in OB, Frank.

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Marc Snelling Marc Snelling May 31, 2014 at 1:52 pm

I don’t understand people assuming they are entitled to FAR and other variances. Isn’t the zoning something you research when you buy a property? If someone is complaining the zoning is restrictive, its their fault for not doing their homework. I also don’t understand calling these lots substandard. This is the beach small lots are the standard. If the size makes them ‘substandard’ then why is the city allowing so many lot splits and condoization into more ‘substandard’ lots?

San Diego’s City government seems to ignore its own rules when they want the money. Was the talk of municipal bankruptcy and the opening of the floodgates to condo conversion a coincidence? Speaking of floods. Simple geography shows how vulnerable North OB is to flooding.

The San Diego River drains an area from the Cuyamacas to the ocean. If there is torrential rain North OB will flood. If huge waves make it over the beach it will flood. In the winter of 98 I remember wading through knee deep water to get from Pac Shores to my place on Muir, and I’m guessing that is much smaller flooding then what FEMA is taking about.

San Diego politicians dont do the right thing on their own. It took citizens fighting the Miami Beach plans for OB in the 60s and 70s to get a democratic Planning Board and 30 foot height limit. I agree with Seth that it will likely take a lawsuit to get the attention of City planners and get them to do the job they are already supposed to be doing.

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John June 1, 2014 at 3:51 am

Yeah I remember the flooding in ’98, the water was lapping up to the threshold of my front door and would have continued to rise except the rain just stopped in the nick of time. Both my neighbors (I’m in the 5100 block of W. Pt. Loma, or will be until demolition of my rental unit starts next month) had their cars flooded. That wasn’t nearly the worst flooding that’s happened here and it’s an anomaly that there hasn’t been a single real El Nino winter since then. I’ve seen a picture from the late 70’s or early 80’s of people rowing a boat in front of the big 3 story condo at Voltaire and W. Pt. Loma, with the water near the top of the roofs of the cars lining the street. As a result of that damage you can easily put a hole in any of the walls in my duplex up to about 42″ high by just pushing on them- the wallboard just crumbles.
Still it should be noted some things have changed since then- notably the Army Corps of Engineers removed a large section of the middle jetty, so if the river is flooding at a time of storm surge, the water doesn’t dump over the south jetty into OB, it has Mission Bay to fill too. (does everyone remember the rat infestation that year when they also removed the feral cats?) I understand the city has upgraded pumping stations that service this area, and the people I’ve talked to who were here in those big floods said the situation was brought on by negligence of the city to trim the palm trees in the ares. They’d let them go and the wind filled the streets with fronds which then clogged the storm drains.
Of course if we get a real El Nino storm when the ground is already waterlogged all bets are off, our infrastructure just isn’t up to such an deluge.
It’s true a string of dry winters has made people forget what happens down here right at sea level- I remember Stebbins, when applying for his original permit, said “I’ve lived here since 2000, and the parking lot has always been dry” which is correct but it’s like saying “I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1907 and we never had a bad earthquake”. It’s hardly a reason to say people shouldn’t be building new houses- both new and old will get flooded, and the fact of the matter is that the new builds follow newer codes and have their slabs 2-3 feet above grade, instead of several inches like the old structures.

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Geoff Page May 31, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Excellent piece Seth. If anyone thinks this is too much reading, I suggest at least read the last paragraph. It may well take a lawsuit to make the City adhere to the Municipal Code.

I’ve pointed out the same things Seth said here, there is a defacto rezoning taking place. Another contributor is the weakened MC rules regarding guest quarters and companion units, not to mention the new MC that allows a bathroom in an accessory structure.

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Seth May 31, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Thanks, Geoff. And an excellent takes by you above as well.

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Ted Malecki June 1, 2014 at 5:53 pm

I’m new to this issue but not to O.B. Although I have only lived here since 1980, I’ve seen many changes to this village, not all of them good. I grew up in a small town (suburb) in CT. The big broad leaf cigar tobacco owners started selling off the property to developers, and the little baseball field (complete with dugouts, and corrugated metal roofing sheets for our home run fence that we dragged 2 miles down from the dump on our bikes) we had built for our sandlot games. We were preteens then, but we saw the bull dozers & graders coming in and we were pissed, but not entirely powerless. We petitioned, we sought parental support, but of course we were too late. Bumper to bumper traffic and huge hotels are what my old neighborhood looks like now.
So, who was on the planning board back in 2007 back when this David Stebbins guy first got his variance that is still on the planning board now. Who on the planning board does he do business with (legal practice? does he have anything on any of the planning board members? which of them does he take out to dinner? go to ball games with?) It all comes down to money, like the big tobacco of my youth, which of the deep pockets that want the variances have relationships with the City Planning Board members outside of the meetings?

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John June 1, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Generally speaking in a story like this your suspicions would be reasonable to assume and would be the case. However in this case these are all individual property owners who just want to fulfill a dream of having an admirable residence at the beach. Burks is an old guy who’s owned a few properties down here he gets income from and planned to live in his new build but I understand health issues may preclude this. I can say he’s an honest guy and fair to rent from. The Doumas as far as I am concerned are miles outside of the profile you imagine, he inherited the property from his father who bought it new in the ’50’s, works at a real job and plays volleyball at the beach. I’ve rented from him and his family for almost 19 years now, making a buck is the least thing he’s about.
Stebbins, while an easy target as an attorney, built his house to live in and four years after it’s complete still does and to my knowledge has no intent to move soon.
So I’m not offering a rebuttal because it’s easy to come to the conclusion you have, but I know all of these people and that’s all they are- people who, for one reason or another, be it hard work, planning, or even a bit of luck, can afford to do something many of us would like to but can’t. When you don’t know someone who’s doing something you don’t like it’s easy to portray them as evil and associate them with every evil entity who does the thing you don’t like. The Rag for its part has done a diligent service in covering this story as the “front line” of gentrification of Ocean Beach. The actual battle however may not be so much the people against rich developers but with ourselves against the inevitable wheels of change.
I bet when these cottages were first built someone rallied against the developers and the change they represented.

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Marc Snelling Marc Snelling June 1, 2014 at 11:07 pm

An admirable residence is not one that is out of character with the rest of the neighborhood. Stebbins is a target because his building is out of character and for his misleading public statements about this development, not because of his career.

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John June 2, 2014 at 4:42 am

What would you describe is the “character” of the 3 story condominium building hulking directly across the street from Stebbins’ home, at the corner of Voltaire and WPL? What is the character of the other 3 story private residences within a block or so? Where, in the City of San Diego, are projects being built which resemble 1950’s beach flats? Do you think any bank would finance a mortgage on such a peculiar nostalgic whim? I think you are mistaking this block for a designated historic landmark, which it’s not.
As for misleading statements, well it’s good modern civilization utilizes the written word for sake of posterity. Stebbins’ letter to the city:
http://docs.sandiego.gov/councilcomm_agendas_attach/2014/sglu_140430_3a.pdf
Is available for viewing courtesy of the city of San Diego. I see points where those with a difference of opinion, including myself, can find issue with. I don’t however see anything “misleading” within nor would I pretend I or anyone else is so helpless or easily duped to assert David Stebbins is the one we depend on for information on these issues.
My feelings on this issue are mixed. I don’t think anyone commenting here can say they are being so directly displaced by these projects as I am. My 19 years at the same address ends this month and I can’t afford another rental in this area, yet funny enough I support my owner’s project, though of course I’d like to go back 10 years and stop them all but that’s hardly realistic. I know these people and painting them as villains is not going to accomplish a thing and is counterproductive toward moving forward as a community.
In that respect the issue now is how variances should apply to the whole community, or not- and Stebbins had a valid point that it’s unfair to now suspend them with only this block in mind.

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Aging Hippie June 2, 2014 at 11:50 am

Welcome to La Jolla South, formerly known as Ocean Beach.

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Scott June 2, 2014 at 1:13 pm

A quick glance at the Stebbin’s letter illustrates some of the major issues by highlighting only a few of his misleading statements.

1. He claims that the .70 FAR was a mistake and it should really be 1.0 FAR. This is a ridiculous statement and absolutely no evidence exists to backup this claim that he has fabricated out of thin air. Contrarily the planning board (i.e. the folks who actually follow this stuff on a regular basis) and those who are involved long term in the community have fought hard to keep the .70 FAR because it is an important tool in the attempt to maintain the unique character of OB. From Stebbin’s letter he clearly favors increasing the FAR and those increasing the size of EVERY new development in OB.

2. He repeatedly claims it is only a few individuals who are interested in discouraging variances and fighting to maintain the FAR. This is also a fabrication (although the planning commission loves it). I do not live on his street yet I am interested as all OB should be because it ultimately effects the development of the whole community. Unfortunately, this issue can be confusing (and not really that fun to follow) thus when these things go to the planning commission it may be 6 against 4 because those 6 all have a huge financial stake in getting their way while the 4 are simply concerned members of the community volunteering their time. Also, these hearings are during normal working hours making it impossible for other concerned citizens to support the Planning Board in its opposition.

BTW the Planning Board is designed to represent the community. Board members must collect signatures from their district (thus speaking with people about issues like this) and are actually elected. Stebbins has had many chances to participate but no interest in actually being involved in the process of community planning in Ocean Beach. Rather he simply shows up when it is convenient to help fight to overturn the will of the people (through their representatives) who do this day in and day out.

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Daniel June 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm

So the ‘Attorney at Law’ signature at the bottom of the page got me thinking about my search earlier this year…
Go to the State Bar of California, type in the name ‘David Stebbins’
http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/MemberSearch/QuickSearch?FreeText=David+Stebbins&SoundsLike=true&SoundsLike=false&x=42&y=4

No result.

Type into google, you find “The Stebbins Group Real Estate” with this written under ‘about us’. “David Stebbins is a licensed real estate broker and practicing attorney.”

Has anyone asked him where does he practice?

Has anyone asked him where he holds a real estate license (no number given)?

Colbert trademarked ‘truthiness’ or ‘truth based on what someone believes to be true and not based on fact’. Is there ‘truthiness’ in this letter?

I DO NOT wish to incite negative action against an individual. However if an individual makes claims as I have read in the face of what I have observed, then I ask these simple questions to verify the source of the claim is individually verifiable and not a form of ‘truthiness’.

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Daniel June 2, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Ah, further google search finds this:

http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/Member/Detail/202294

Bar approval verified.

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Geoff Page June 2, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Are you sure his letter said a 1.0 FAR. The .70 FAR is 70% of the lot area, if he proposed a 1.0 FAR, that would be 100%, which does not make sense.

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John June 4, 2014 at 4:58 am

This article might better explain the impact of FAR on a community, and why a 1.0 FAR is perfectly rational:

http://domz60.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/what-is-a-floor-area-ratio-far-and-why-is-far-important-to-urban-design/

As another reader posted above, density is something that will raise its ugly head someday.
I think a lot of people interested in this issue are so for wildly divergent reasons. Some want to keep the community as it was, with older housing and cheap rents, others may be property owners who wish to prevent others from moving in, keeping traffic and density down. Each group would as strongly oppose a 3 story apartment building as a 3 story “McMansion”. These two agendas directly conflict as each project replacing a beach flat would be favorable to one agenda and hurt the other.

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Geoff Page June 2, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Here is a link Stebbin’s real estate license:

http://www2.dre.ca.gov/PublicASP/pplinfo.asp?License_id=00787733

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Randy Mason June 9, 2014 at 8:37 am

Hello all concerned citizens of OB!

Could someone post here where there are locations of petitions which are against this change in variances?

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