Reader Article Shines Light on Point Loma’s 30-Foot Height Limit Controversy

by on September 8, 2016 · 1 comment

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

height-limit-graphic-cityIn a very recent article in the San Diego Reader by Julie Stalmer, entitled, “30-foot coastal height limit slips a peg in Point Loma”, a needed searchlight is shown on the foggy controversy surrounding the 30-foot height limit controversy rolling over Point Loma.

Let’s bypass for the moment the minor issue about the September 8th San Diego Planning Commission meeting being called about the city’s solution to the controversy (of which Peninsula planning leaders were not notified) – and then being cancelled at the last moment – and look what Stalmer found.

She delved into what Peninsula planners see as the culprit that has caused the controversy around the sacrosanct 30-foot height limit, for afterall Prop D – which passed overwhelmingly in 1972 – is still on the books.

The culprit, according to the Point Loma planning leaders that Stalmer interviewed, Jon Linney, chair, and Don Sevrens, member, is August 2013 technical bulletin put out by the Development Services Department. They believe, with a lot of basis, that the technical bulletin attempted “to reinterpret the over-40-year-old 30-foot coastal height limit.”

Stalmer also talked to Peninsula Community Planning Board member Jerry Lohla about who was responsible for the 2013 technical bulletin. Lohla told her:

“I don’t think anyone knows with certainty what individuals are responsible, but ultimately the Development Services Department director is responsible because they put out the bulletin that allowed dirt to be piled on a site and then measured up 30 feet from that dirt pile.

“Also I would suggest that you not call it a loophole. A loophole can be legal, like loopholes with the IRS that you can take advantage of but are legal.

“Technical Bulletin 5-4 totally disregards Section 113.0270 of the Municipal Code in explaining how to determine reference datum for projects within the Coastal Height Limit Overlay Area.

So, what is the city’s reasoning on this? Stalmer quotes Lohla:

“Robert Vacchi’s [current development services director] lame reasoning is that the Proposition D language referenced the Uniform Building Code which was used in much of the western U.S. at the time Prop D was voted on [in 1972]. It seems unrealistic to think that in drafting the Prop D language, the city would have presumed that [building code] methodology would supersede the methodology of the city’s municipal code.”

Stalmer asks:”Why did this happen?” Lohla responded:

 “Ultimately, I think it’s because of influence of the development community. They’re always down at city hall pressuring development services to add as many square feet as possible. So they probably influenced the director of that time to interpret the requirements of Proposition D differently than our Point Loma community does.”

In looking for who was responsible for the bulletin, Stalmer ended up examining the circumstances that accompanied shake-ups in the planning department and Development Services Department (DSD):

Besides the scandal that resulted in Mayor Bob Filner leaving office on August 30, there was the matter of shake-ups at both the city’s Development Services Department and planning department. The planning department that merged with the Development Services Department under Mayor Jerry Sanders in 2011 was being reconstituted by Filner that summer. His 2013 appointment of big-guns planner Bill Fulton for a dedicated director of city planning came on the heels of the developmental services director Broughton stepping down.

Tomlinson stepped in as interim developmental services department director in June 2013, which means he was in charge when the bulletin in question was published. He was replaced with Vacchi in December 2013 via an appointment from interim mayor Todd Gloria. The shake-up continued into 2014 with Fulton stepping down and with Mayor Faulconer’s attempts to privatize part of the planning department before finally appointing a new director in September 2015. Tomlinson is currently the assistant planning director.

All this is helpful.

But it doesn’t clarify why the Planning Commission hearing set for today was abruptly cancelled.

Ever since community turmoil surrounding the Emerson-Evergreen project burst out into the open, and Mayor Faulconer issued a stop-work order on the project, more and more Point Lomans are questioning any actual or perceived exceptions to the 30-foot height limit allowed by DSD.

One week ago, Peninsula representatives met with mayor’s staff and other city people about trying to find a solution. The community representatives reported that the city was coming up with proposals that would resolve the issues and questions swirling around projects like Emerson and Evergreen.

Yet, critics are already questioning these “solutions” are wrong-headed in that the new city solution –

“will allow”, according to former Peninsula planner, Geoff Page,”the currently, incorrectly and illegally approved projects to continue because they were not subject to this ‘new’ rule, which is, in fact not new but is merely restating what the Municipal Code already requires. This is a maneuver by the city to avoid the lawsuits it will face if it requires the currently, incorrectly and illegally approved projects to be re-evaluated and re-designed.

Page continues:

The second major problem is that the city’s report contains language stating that Proposition D allows developers to measure height from the new designed finished grade not the existing grade. This is entirely wrong and if this stupidity is not corrected, the 30-foot height limit will be worthless as developers raise the grades on their properties as has happened in Roseville, and build structures beyond 30 feet. This proposed change in the Municipal Code needs to be defeated and the city needs to be required to abandon this interpretation and re-evaluate all currently approved projects.

We’re hoping that any questions about why the Peninsula planners were not notified of the Planning Commission meeting were resolved at the September 2nd meeting. Because Sevrens was upset, as reported by Julie Stalmer:

“The hearing came as a shock to us,” said Sevrens. “Every civil group was told about the hearing except for us. Apparently what’s happened is the mayor’s office has decided to do something by administration action because legislation takes longer. What they’re proposing is to fight the height limit, but on square footage versus actual height.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Geoff Page Geoff Page September 8, 2016 at 3:31 pm

I have to clarify something here because the issue has become muddled. Square footage has absolutely nothing to do with height. What happened on Emerson was that residents saw how tall the building was and rioted. The city issued a Stop Work Order that people mistakenly believed was due to the height complaint but the Stop Work Order says nothing about height.

We originally believed the developer was artificially raising the grade to get a taller building when, in fact, the city granted a permit for a 40-foot tall building that the city still believes is perfectly legal. What they cited the developer for was artificially creating a subterranean garage by building retaining walls and raising the grade around the garage. Although, keep in mind, the DSD approved the plans that clearly showed what the developer planned to do. They are lionizing the developer when the DSD is the culprit.

If a garage structure is considered subterranean, it is not counted against the Floor Area Ratio (FAR). The developer did this because the lot is small and they could only get so much square footage based on the formula. The developer can still build a skinnier 40-foot tall building if they wanted to, with the correct square footage.

The big issue now is to correct the city’s idea that Prop D allows a developer to raise the grade and then do the 30-foot measurement. The DSD believes this is correct, the director of the DSD, Vacchi, said so at the Peninsula Community Planning Board meeting in July. This is ridiculous because the Uniform Building Code (UBC) that the Prop D references is a DESIGN and construction document. Vacchi is saying design first then measure, which is backward. Measure first and design to that is the correct way. Everything else is done this way, the size of the footings, the size of the framing, the materials for siding, the plumbing, etc. are all taken from the UBC to DESIGN a building so why would this one item, the height, be treated differently.

We need to fight this amendment they want to put in the MC so that the current projects cannot be built and we need this raising of the grade idiocy to stop. The city is relying on a city attorney memo that is over 30 years old that I am sure would not hold up to legal scrutiny today. And, when that memo was issued, the City Attorney proposed language to put in the Municipal Code to clarify Prop D meant “existing grade” which I believe is also unnecessary but not harmful except that adding it would exempt all current projects from redesign. This memo and language is in the file I obtained from Vacchi but oddly enough, the city is not proposing this language as a Municipal Code amendment. This battle is far from over.

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