Peninsula Planners Juggle Minutes, Agendas and Words Over 30-Foot Height Limit

by on September 19, 2016 · 3 comments

in Civil Rights, Environment, History, Ocean Beach, Politics, San Diego

point-loma-google-satelliteBy Geoff Page

The Peninsula Community Planning Board (PCPB) held its regular monthly meeting Thursday, September 15, 2016, at the Point Loma/Hervey Branch Library.  There was a crowded agenda and one of the topics having to do with the 30-foot Coastal Height Limit generated a great deal of interest.

With 14 of the fifteen board members present, the meeting began and ended at the normal times, and initially meeting seemed to be well attended – but as the night proceeded, it appeared that most in the audience were there to represent the projects being voted on.

Contention During Approval of Minutes

During the “Approval of Agenda,” – normally a routine matter –  it was not routine at this meeting as there was contention when two additions were made.  The PCPB chair Jon Linney first proposed adding an information item to the agenda having to do with a City of San Diego sewer and water replacement project.  The city asked to appear after the agenda was first posted.  By a unanimous vote, the PCPB voted add the item.


Jack Straw at podium during meeting of PCPB, 9/15/16

Unfortunately – from the eyes of this reporter, a former board member – by accommodating the city, the community had no advance notice the information was being presented.  Had the city been required to postpone its presentation until the next meeting, the PCPB could have ensured that at least the proper 72-hour notice was provided the public.

Board member James Hare then proposed adding a second item that many people felt was left off of the agenda, although the chair disagreed.  The item that Mr. Hare proposed adding was to have PCPB  discuss, and take a position on, the 30-foot height limit item coming to the San Diego Planning Commission on September 22nd.  After the community uproar over a project on Emerson and Evergreen streets in Roseville, the city created some language it is proposing for addition to the Municipal Code (MC).  This language is, according to the city, intended to plug a loophole over height in the multi-family zones of Point Loma.

The chair said he left the first “Action Item” on the agenda, Emerson Street, “deliberately vague” so that the PCPB could discuss several things about the Emerson Street project, one of which lead to the city’s new Municipal Code amendment.  Several board members were critical of this saying that reading just “Emerson Street” on the action item list did not provide enough detail for the public to understand what would be discussed and what action would be taken.

Mr. Hare and others believed the PCPB needed to act on the item because the Planning Commission hearing will be held in a week and this was probably the PCPB’s last chance to act.

As an aside, adding an action item to an agenda at a meeting is a serious matter and is governed by strict rules. The main reason to avoid doing this is that the public, other than the few people who were in attendance, has no chance to participate.  The PCPB by-laws, published on, state how to deal with this situation:

“(viii) ACTION ON AGENDA ITEMS – An item not noticed on the agenda may be added if either two-thirds of the voting members of the PCPB, or every member if less than two-thirds of the voting members of the PCPB are present, determine by a vote that there is a need to take an immediate action, but only if the need for action came to the attention of the planning board subsequent to the agenda being posted.”

The board’s discussion centered around the last part of the previous sentence, whether or not the issue came to the attention of the PCPB before the agenda was posted.  It was determined that the PCPB had obviously known about it but had just not put a clear item on the agenda for it.  The board voted 13 to 1 to add the item, contrary to its own by-laws – in this reporter’s eyes – depriving the community of the chance to participate in the discussion.

From my own experience on the Board, I know there was another provision of the by-laws the PCPB could have used that would have given time to notice the public.  A “Special Meeting” could have been called.  This would have been a meeting to discuss this one item and could have been called for any day before the 22nd.  Special meetings only require 24 hours notice but more notice could have been provided.  This would have also provided for a lengthier discussion instead of the shortened discussion necessitated by a crowded agenda.

The Board Gets Hot Over Meeting Minutes

The PCPB moved on to the “Secretary’s Report”- and  that became a heated discussion about the minutes – or lack of minutes – of Board meetings.  The current secretary, David Dick, was the one absent board member.

One of the issues mentioned was how long it was taking to get the minutes approved and provided to the public.  Board member Don Sevrens stated that the planning board was violating the Brown Act and city rules by taking so long to post approved minutes, a position he has held for some time. It is generally agreed that the PCPB has been in compliance with rules regarding posting minutes.

Sevrens also stated that the Department of Development Services needed the meeting minutes as quickly as possible in order to know the PCPB’s position on projects the board reviewed.

From my experience, again, as a former board member, this is not the process.  When the city sends a set of project plans to the planning boards for review, the city includes a form that the chair of the planning board has to fill out subsequent to the full board vote on a project.  The form records the vote and contains some additional information and is then sent back to the Development Services Department (DSD) immediately.  Meeting minutes have to be reviewed and approved by the planning boards at subsequent meetings, which could mean a month of delay; the form saves that time.

It was decided to continue the discussion about the secretary at the next meeting when he might be present.

Non-Agenda Comments

Non-agenda public comment was next.

Balboa Park Former PCPB member Jarvis Ross spoke about the Balboa Park projects that revived including the access road and bridge.  Mr. Ross believes the projects will harm the park.

Peninsula Trees The next speaker was from a new group called save Peninsula Trees,, formed to protect the peninsula’s trees spurred on by the city’s Torrey pine removals on Saratoga Avenue in Ocean Beach.  She said they were inventorying the peninsula’s trees and their goal was to make the city follow its own rules regarding tree removals.  She said the Ocean Beach Planning Board was supporting them and asked if the PCPB would do the same.

Board member Bruce Coons described what he referred to as the city’s “war on trees” and mentioned several instance in other parts of the city where the city had removed trees against the recommendations and protests of the community.

A third speaker addressed concerns with airport issues.

Presentation on Future of the Airport

The next part of the agenda was a presentation by the airport showing what was planned between now and 2035 to 2040.  The main project was replacement of Terminal One that will occur over a number of years.  This will also lead to the removal of Terminal Two East.

The presenters mentioned the new intermodal transportation project that will take place on Pacific Highway, a shuttle road from there to Terminal One, and removal of the commuter terminal.  The airport is hoping to have the terminal work done by 2025 but that it might speed up the schedule because LAX is planning to hit 2023 for its major improvements in time for the Olympics.

Point Loma Nazarine University’s Conditional Use Permit

The next “Information Item” was about the Point Loma Nazarine University’s Conditional Use Permit (CUP), that has to be renewed every five years.  Dr. Joe Watkins spoke for the school.  He discussed erosion issues and stated that the school had spent $300,000 on erosion control improvements.

Erosion control is a contentious issue between members of the community and the school as many believe the school is responsible for the erosion damage to Sunset Cliffs Park below the school.  Dr. Watkins revealed that the low road just above the park, that serves the dormitory that edges the park, is actually on park property.  He mentioned that it washed out during the rains a few years a go and the school repaired on its own dime knowing it would be hard on the city to pay for it.

In this reporter’s view, considering the road is there solely because of the school, it would seem the school should be responsible for its maintenance.  Dr. Watkins also mentioned the parking issue that is a point of contention in the neighborhood and things the school is doing to try and deal with the problem.

Sewer and Water Main Work

The added information item was last.  Two people from the city explained the sewer and water main replacement work to take place along Canon St., on Albion, Concord, Ulman, Varona, Evergreen and Talbot streets, and Bangor Place.

Planning Commission and 30-Foot Heights

Up next was the first Action Item – the one added to the agenda.  Jack Straw, Director of Land Use and Environmental Policy for the mayor explained what was going before the Planning Commission on the 22nd.  As a result of the problems in the multi-family zone of Roseville, regarding buildings that that the city believes the Municipal Code (MC) allows to be over 30 feet high, the following language is being recommended as added footnote number 37 to Table 131-04G “Development Regulations for RM Zones”:

“Within the Coastal Height Limit Overlay Zone of the Peninsula Community Plan area, the base zone maximum structure height shall be 30 feet. Proposed structures shall demonstrate compliance with the rules for calculation and measurement of structure height in Section l 13 .0270(a)(4)(D).”

Only one person spoke against supporting this language – this reporter.  I explained two major problems with supporting this language.  The first problem was that this language was unnecessary and if added to the Municipal Code, it would mean only projects going forward would be affected.  This would absolve the DSD of all its errors to date and get the city out of any liabilities for incorrectly approving projects.

Plus I pointed out that Table 131-04G only tells developers how tall a building can be within the city but it has always been necessary to go elsewhere in the MC to determine how to measure that height.  This new footnote amounts to nothing more than a reminder to look at that section of the MC. The line in the table where the footnote will refer to is “Max structure height.”   Italicized words in the MC are words that have formal definitions.  The MC definition of structure height is as follows:

“Structure height means the vertical distance between all points on top of a structure or any of its appurtenances and grade directly blew.  See Section 113.0270 for additional information on measuring structure height.”

In my view, the new footnote achieved nothing other than saving the city from its own mistakes.  The language in the city staff report that stated Proposition D, the 30-foot height law, allowed a developer to raise the grade on a property before measuring the thirty feet was wrong and needed to be removed.

This generated a strong response from Mr. Straw who stated the city had opinions from several past city attorneys that confirmed the city’s position.  No other dissenting voices were heard and the board voted 11 to 1 to one in favor of the new MC language.  It was decided that the PCPB vice chair would represent the PCPB at the Planning Commission hearing.

Emerson Street Action Item

Moving on to the Emerson Street, the chair stated that the PCPB needed to see the new plans but Mr. Straw said the plans were not complete yet. Mr. Straw gave an update on the project mentioning that the top floor was coming off due to a floor area ration (FAR) violation, not because of the height.

Mr. Straw said there would be a rooftop deck with a four foot railing around it.  It was pointed out that this violated Proposition D because the measurement was supposed to be to the highest point of anything.  Mr. Straw disagreed on this point.  The board voted 12 to 0 to 1 to approve the city’s action on the project and to request a chance to see the new plans.

The next action item was to add two community members to the PCPB’s Land Use Subcommittee, which passed unanimously.

Wabaska Ave Changes

This was followed by a presentation on proposed changes to Wabaska Avenue making it a bike route.  Former board member Nicole Burgess lead the discussion of four possible configurations to Wabaska.  Two of the proposals included a protected bike lane between the curb and parked cars.  Both of the favored proposals reduced parking along Wabaska from its current level, one by 11 spots and one by 20 spots.  The board 9 to 2 to 1 to support either of the favored proposals.  By this time, one of the board members had left the meeting.  The other two proposals involved a bike lane on the outside of parked cars that provided little protection for cyclists.

Voltaire Street Bridge Improvements

From there the PCPB moved to an item about the design of improvements to the Voltaire Street bridge over Nimitz.  The city is going to make improvements to the bridge, one of which will be new railings.

The city’s design consists of a concrete barrier topped by a chain link fence that many felt was unattractive.  Two suggested designs were discussed but the only representation of the designs were drawn on an 8-1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper that the audience could not see.  It was explained that the decision had to be made quickly because the city had given a deadline beyond which it would not consider any changes.  The board voted unanimously for one of the two new designs.

Actions on 3 Projects

The final action items dealt with three projects.

  • The first was a proposal to add a second residence to a home on Niagara in the multi-family zone, which passed unanimously.
  • The second item was a plan by the Union 76 Station on Sports Area Blvd. to convert part of its garage facility to a convenience store and an application to sell liquor at the site.  This project was unanimously approved.
  • The final project was a plan to add a wireless facility to the new Point Loma Fire Station on Catalina Blvd. when it is built.  This also passed unanimously.

The meeting adjourned at 9:30 p.m.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

PL Lifer September 19, 2016 at 11:21 pm

I was at this meeting, it was the first one I ever attended so I went with the watch and learn attitude. But I was dumb founded (and I can not stress those two words enough) by how poorly the meeting was run. Board members should not be correcting each other on what the rules are in front of an audience. Of the Board members that spoke, there is not one of them that knows how to communicate clearly and effectively. It is also very obvious that there are personality issues between the members and that those issues are effecting how the Board is run. This was embarrassing to watch and sad to say a waste of a Thursday night.

If this meeting was an example of how the Board operates then I can see why a developer would bypass the Planning Board and go straight to the City; and why the City would be more than willing to help them do it.

I did think it was interesting that the Mayor’s representative stated that this amendment would only apply to Pt. Loma because other coastal communities have additional protections in place, such as a restrictive FAR, that Pt. Loma does not. How did that happen?

All this being said, I agree that this amendment is just a way for the City to CYA, but that is par for the course with the City of San Diego. Do I believe that they have written a “fine print backdoor” clause into this, sadly yes. I would like to believe that someone somewhere at City hall has decided to do the right thing and help the citizenry. But since they are the ones who continually bring us this problem, through out the City not just in our community, I am hesitant to accept their answer. I think a better resolution would be to amend the ministerial plan process, or do away with it all together. Or is there a way that we, the citizens of San Diego, can demand and get a house cleaning at DSD?


Geoff Page September 20, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Pl Lifer, I hope you won’t give up on the planning board because of one meeting. I’ve been involved with the group for a number of years and it can be contentious at times, I agree, but what you witnessed was community level politics working on local concerns. It isn’t always pretty. Over the years, control of the board has swung back and forth between development and real estate interests on one side and progressive community activists on the other. I would have said the current board strikes a fairly decent balance until recent developments. But this meeting was not how all the meetings go.

Developers would love to skip this process but not because it is contentious. They would like to skip it to avoid the scrutiny they have to endure. The city does not let them just skip it either.

As for what the mayor’s representative had to say, do not take as gospel what you heard in one experience with the mayor’s people anymore than you should write off the planning board based on one meeting.

My favorite comment of yours was your last. The DSD house does need cleaning, in fact it needs more than cleaning, it needs demolition and rebuilding into something that actually has the interests of the citizens at heart and not the development and real estate interests.


Debbie September 20, 2016 at 8:37 am

Cleaning house is way overdue It all starts at the top….and that would be Faulconer.


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