Reader’s Rant: Peninsula Planning Board Chair Prevented Community from Important Questioning of City Development Director

by on February 1, 2017 · 33 comments

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

Original poster from the 1972 battle for Proposition D – the 30-foot height limit citizens’ initiative.

Lost Opportunity to “Grill” Director Vacchi Over 30-Foot Height Enforcement

By Geoff Page

I want to relate some observations and opinions about the 30-foot height discussion and the sorry appearance of Robert Vacchi, Director of the Development Services Department (DSD), at the January 19 monthly meeting of the Peninsula Community Planning Board (PCPB).  I wrote a report of the meeting that appeared in the OB Rag last week but that report was an attempt at an objective account of the meeting; my opinions, and I have a few, were held in check.

Let me start my piece with a little background.  Recently, the editor of the OB Rag drafted me into his informal and diverse staff to provide regular reporting on the Midway and Peninsula monthly planning board meetings. To his credit, the editor is making a real effort to provide as much news as he can about the community around us, if he can manage to cajole enough folks to help.  The main focus is OB, of course, and Point Loma, but also beyond.  (I also wrote a report about the Midway Community Planning Board meeting that does not figure in this story.)

Despite what some critics might say about the editor’s bias, which is clear, I have to say also that he strives for objectivity when it comes to straight reporting.  I was a big fan of Hunter Thompson and Gonzo journalism appealed to me.  When I wrote my first two reports, I did a little of that and editor dude cleaned it up.  I was a bit surprised but I got it.  I actually have a dusty, little-used journalism degree.  So, when I wrote this recent report on the PCPB, I wrote an objective report, but it was a struggle.  I had more I wanted to say.

The most important item discussed at the PCPB meeting was the 30-foot height limit, a subject that is dear to anyone who lives within the area of Proposition D, the initiative that was passed by the citizens of San Diego in 1972.  Vacchi was scheduled to be at the meeting to give a presentation of the DSD’s interpretation of the 30-foot height limit.  His twisted opinion of how the height of a building is determined is the subject of a great deal of anger within this community.

In a meeting that lasted two and a half hours, only 15 minutes were devoted to this.  The room was full of people.  I’ve been on this board twice and have attended many meetings so when I say there was a much larger than normal crowd, I know what I’m talking about.  Whenever a hot button issue came before the board, the room was full, but normally, the audience was only a few people.

There was a crowd for the January 19 meeting because some of us had put out the word that this discussion with Vacchi would be happening.  The crowd was very disappointed and I am here to point my finger at the chair of the PCPB, Jon Linney, for deliberately limiting this discussion.

The chair of a planning board sets the agenda.  The agenda is voted on at the very beginning of each meeting.  The meeting is supposed to follow that agenda.   There is usually a portion of time devoted to Government Reports;  in the PCPB’s case the reports are from Lori Zapf’s office and the Planning Department. Zapf’s representative did his thing and the Planning Department was a no show.

Then, to my surprise, the chair introduced a representative from the San Diego Police Department.  This was not on the agenda.  I wondered if something had come up and this was added because of some urgency but that was not the case.  I’m only relating this to frame a picture of the time that could have been devoted to the DSD issue that was stolen.  The SDPD representative gave a general informational presentation and when it was over it was clear there was no issue of any urgency.  This took up about 15 to 20 minutes.

Another chunk of time was stolen next.  After Government Reports, there were Information Items, one of which was Vacchi’s appearance.  The first information item, however, was a new project in the La Playa area.  The problem for me was that this presentation was completely out of order and a waste of time.  New projects that come before the board go first to the Project Review Subcommittee and then to the full board for action.  Giving this kind of special time to any one project is highly questionable but at the very least wasted another 20 to 25 minutes of time.

Vacchi was next.  The chair announced there would be 15 minutes for the matter.  Vacchi spoke for eight minutes and the chair announced there would be 7 minutes for questions – he was very clear about that and he timed it.  For the rare opportunity when the head of the DSD came out and faced a community, the chair allowed 7 minutes of questions in a meeting that was 150 minutes long.  The 30 to 40 minutes lost to an unscheduled appearance by the SDPD and an unusual, out of normal process presentation of a project – that wasn’t ready for the board to even review yet – could have been devoted to the far more serious issue of the 30-foot height limit – and the assault on it by the very city that is supposed to be enforcing it.  In fact, the chair ended the meeting a half hour early, more time that could have been used.

What happened?  As Richard Pryor’s Mudbone character said “It’s the politics, baby.”  The chair of the PCPB is a 23-year-old young man with grand political aspirations and it has become increasingly clear he is cozying up to the city.  This is not good for the community, and, unfortunately, the rest of the board is letting him run wild.  The chair did not want Vacchi to face the crowd that night, he handled the agenda the way he did to ensure there was no time for the biggest issue. He was protecting Vacchi, – hell – he allowed more questioning of the SDPD and the La Playa project than he did of Vacchi.

This is the same fellow who is taking large credit for a recent change to the Municipal Code – which I believe is a sham – that was generated by a big community protest over a building on Emerson and Evergreen in Roseville.  He arranged two secret and closed meetings with the city that included two other board members and one other person.  The meeting was not sanctioned by the PCPB.  The chair said to all of the media, as he was delightfully interviewed multiple times, that although he and the other two men were members of the PCPB, they were there as private citizens.  Some of us heard about these meetings at the last minute and wanted to attend but were barred.  When the cameras were rolling, this guy was there smiling.

So, what’s my point?  My biggest point is that the 30-foot height limit is under real assault by the city. We had a chance to grill the city and it was a joke.

How do we defend it?  We will get nowhere with Zapf, Vacchi, or the mayor. These people are all of a like mind and if we don’t fight back at the grassroots level, where the planning boards are, we have nowhere to go.  We can’t let the planning boards be co-opted by the city as the PCPB has, in my opinion.  There will be elections in March for five of the board seats.  I encourage people to volunteer and run for a seat and be a voice, not just for the 30-foot height limit but for anything that affects the Peninsula.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

old ob hippie February 1, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Dig that 1972 poster! Where was it taken out of its plastic cover?

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editordude February 1, 2017 at 4:11 pm

At a presentation of the grassroots efforts that got Prop D on the ballot at an OB Historical Society event a few years ago.

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joe February 2, 2017 at 4:11 pm

Maybe it’s time for another height limit resolution, one that keeps the developer-happy politicos in line. I passed by a tall new residense on Narragansett which went up 2 stories from ground level…which had been built up what seemed to be a one story “mountain”.
Unfortunately, politics runs with $$$ and developers have the $$$ to effect changes. It is the City that should be enforcing the height limit, and that’s where SD falls down. SD is closer to “Enron-by-the-Sea” than it is to “America’s Finest City”.

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AJ February 2, 2017 at 5:01 pm

Geoff, you really need to get a hobby.
Or a girlfriend or something. No disrespect but my God do you spend time watching where all the birds are taking a shit. Do you also make sure everybody keeps their cars clean around your neighborhood? You have to have something better to do than complain about every little issue, go to every little meeting, talk shit about everyone. No matter what happens with any development in the peninsula you cry about it. I honestly don’t mean any disrespect, forgive me if it sounds that way but man …..I check this website out maybe once a month just for shits and giggles cause I live in OB and its always you bagging on people. You need to understand something sir, change is happening, and it will just like it has in many other areas of san diego. its called need for housing, and densification… Its different yes, it creates more traffic yes, but it also creates new housing that is well needed. new buildings which are nice weather they are to YOUR taste or not… it also provides people the opportunity to develop a new business in the area with more market to attend to. Densification is happening at 1000 miles per hour in this area and its going to keep happening. And I know you are thinking “well they should build, but they should follow the rules”. I agree with that! and i also agree that if you dont like this change you should try to change it…But do it respectfully and discretely with class…Im in the internet marketing business, i don’t know two shits about development….but i do know because i have friends who do that, that the process is rigorous at the city to get something passed. it takes a long time and they are very difficult….do they always get it right? no! are they perfect, no…but my god man let these people make a living. I hope this doesent sound aggressive, i just wanted to get my point across.

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Geoff Page Geoff Page February 3, 2017 at 9:44 am

AJ, you’ll have to forgive me if I say that I don’t need your advice about a hobby or a girlfriend. I’ve managed to make it through 66 years without your advice and I’m doing fine.

As you say later in your post, “I [sic] don’t know two shits about development,” which makes one wonder why you decided to jump in here except to criticize me. I think you might want to take your own advice about a hobby or a girlfriend. In contrast to you, I do know a lot about development and I know it needs to be watched by people who care about the community. I know a lot about the attacks on the 30-foot height limit. I know what a coastline looks like that does not have such a protection. Have you ever been to Daytona Beach or Fort Lauderdale or any of a number of beaches all over the country that never had any protection like the 30-foot height limit? Unless you have, you simply cannot appreciate how precious that protection is to our coastline.

The 30-foot height limit was created by a citizen initiative. Several San Diegans volunteered a massive amount of personal time and effort to get it on the ballot where it passed in 1972. It is the law, AJ. I, and a bunch of other people, are doing what we can to defend that law and the legacy of the people who worked so hard to get it passed. This is not a density issue for me, this a protection of San Diego’s most valuable asset, it’s coastal communities that all San Diegans enjoy, it is not just a bunch of folks in the beach area trying to protect their own.

Yes, more housing is needed but that is a different issue. If the 30-foot height limit did not exist, the housing that would be built would be for the wealthy, it would not alleviate the housing problem for the folks who need it most. Yes, the development process is arduous because it is intended to make sure we develop in a responsible and safe manner. The requirements for development evolved over many years to include things people wanted, these requirements aren’t just made up out of thin air by a small group of people somewhere trying to make it difficult to build.

Follow the rules, yes. Do they always get it right, of course not, but what I, and others, watch for is when they try to deliberately circumvent the law. Are they perfect, of course not, some make mistakes, others border on criminal. Let these people make a living? I don’t even know how to respond to such a comment.

You said you just wanted to get your point across but it seems your point was that you don’t like what I am doing, that’s a small point. Like everyone walking this earth, I have people who dislike me and those who do like me. I can’t please everyone, if I did, I’d be doing something wrong. So, if you are only reading The Rag for “shits and giggles,” I’d suggest you stick to the funny pages instead because you are not paying attention well enough to be commenting.

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AJ February 3, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Ah my friend.

First of all you went on and on about the 30 foot height limit. I actually agree with the 30 foot height limit idea. I think it was a good effort. But my comments to you where more in general, not so much specifically about this article you wrote which seems to have gotten the attention of 3 people so far and me.

Let me make this clearer to you as to what I meant in a few words. You dedicate a lot of your time to watching what other people do with THEIR properties. You complain about almost every developer or development that comes across the table at the planning board. No matter what it is. Its not always about the height…Its about parking, map waivers, about style, about look, about how the developer presents, about how long they give them to present, whatever. You complain, you watch, you complain. Where do you find the time to be worried about shit like this anyway. I assume you are retired. My point to this entire thing is…sir you need to get a life. There is more to life than watching your neighbor and trying to fuck with developers who are trying to exercise their property rights or trying to diminish the work one of the board members on the peninsula planning board is doing…Weather you agree with them or not, its not about you. Let me give you some perspective on just to how much people really care about these issues…There is a population of 50,000 people in OB and Point Loma…10-20 people go to this meetings every week or month and sit there and complain and look at every detail of everything that goes on in the area; the rest of the 50,000 people are busy living their lives.

Have a great day

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Geoff Page Geoff Page February 4, 2017 at 7:40 pm

Well, AJ, maybe you need to reread my last response to you, you will see that I didn’t need you to make your point any clearer, I got it. And, to make my point clearer, in case you missed it, I made peace with the fact that not everyone loves me a long time ago so your displeasure with my pursuits is something I can easily live with.

What you characterize as complaining and fucking with developers, I look at as me being one of a number of people trying to watch out for our community because we care. The time I dedicate is my time volunteering to help by providing knowledge I’ve accumulated over 40 years of a construction career. I do this while working a full time job and taking care of a home and a collection of rescued animals. Oh, I have a life AJ, believe me. But about 10 years ago, I was challenged by a community activist to get more involved and to run for the planning board. I had to admit that I had not done much of anything to give back to the community and this was a chance to do that. So I did and I’ve stayed involved. What are you doing, AJ?

I’m wondering just who you are, AJ. Your comments, writing style, and misspellings remind me of someone. My name is on my post, what’s yours?

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AJ February 7, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Andrew Jones is my name is.
I understand and respect your involvement in the community. It is done less than it should. What I have a problem with is the way you talk about some of these people. Developers, planning board members, etc. I think your message should be “let’s check the facts before making assumptions”. I do invite you to check the zoning codes for the area around you and if you have a problem with them you should make an effort to change them. That is very valid. Good luck with that anyway. When you are a developer, and I understand this because I have 3 personal friends that are, it is very unpleasant when you have a community member who has no interest in your own private property trying to tell you what you can and cannot do and why. The city does that for them and trust me, as you know, its a process. Making negative comments on design of a building is way out of place …who are you to criticize someone’s design? That is somebody’s work. Are you taste patrol? Ill tell you this much, anything new that is built around that area is nicer than whats there, always. It also raises property values. Commenting on pricing being too high is simply ridiculous. Developers will price the units as high as the market will bear. If they want to put a $3,000,000 price tag on a condo they can, although the market will dictate if its worth that much period. It is the job of the developer to push as far as he is LEGALLY allowed and maxima profits. At the same time, all neighbors will benefit from this and gain more equity. Point Loma and OB are beautiful areas and long overdue for new buildings and densification. Another really funny thing I see, not necessarily from you specifically, but from other NIMBYS is the idea of denying the tentative maps. What do you want the developer to do? turn them in to AIR B and Bs? I do however understand that the process, as you have mentioned is faulty, and I believe an effort to change it is due…but criticizing developers for submitting as apartments and then doing the mapping to avoid going infront of a bunch of people that are going to knock their project no matter what is ridiculous. They are doing what they are allowed to do. Complain to the city and try to make a change, dont knock developers for exercising their rights. It takes a long time to find a deal, raise the money, and go through the rigorous city process….Again, I command you for being involved in the community and encourage it…just be fair, thats all.

Thank you sir.

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AJ February 7, 2017 at 1:00 pm

i did notice my spelling mistakes haha, i just type too fast sometimes…its just a thread.

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AJ February 26, 2017 at 6:57 am

I guess you are done here Geoff….Nothing to respond anymore. I understand…

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Geoff Page Geoff Page February 26, 2017 at 1:13 pm

That’s right, AJ, there was nothing to respond to.

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AJ February 27, 2017 at 3:18 pm

No because I am right!!….And you know it, you are being exposed…My advice; Go get laid….have a beer and enjoy life….

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Geoff Page Geoff Page February 27, 2017 at 3:39 pm

No because there was no substance in your comment and you clearly do not know what you are commenting on. Your own words in your first post “i don’t know two shits about development” and yet you keep commenting on development. And, I’ve already told you I don’t need life advice from you or anyone else. It’s pretty clear you are just trolling and I’m sure everyone else is tired of it so I’m done replying to this thread. See you on the next one, maybe you’ll have something to actually contribute next time.

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AJ February 28, 2017 at 6:47 am

OKKKK Geoff….No substance.
In fact I think everybody else is tired of your shit….And I dont need to be an expert in development to have common sense, which you dont seem to have…what you have is emotions and biased comments based on what YOU want not what makes sense or what is fair…

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rick callejon February 28, 2017 at 11:14 am

AJ, I’m not tired of Geoff’s shit. His comments are unfailingly knowledgeable and cogent. He doesn’t produce personal petty piffle.

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Marc Snelling Marc Snelling February 28, 2017 at 2:09 pm

I don’t know Geoff other than through his writings at the OB Rag. It seems to me he puts more thought (and his picture and real name) into comments than many others.

We need more people who are willing to actually dig in and understand issues. It’s easy to blame the current state of US politics on one thing or another and write drive-by trolling comments. To actually have the patience to engage on an issue and work towards an outcome takes more pateince and maturity.

In my eyes America is suffering because people have turned their backs on politics in disgust. We need people who are willing to wade through the crap if we are going to get out of this. People who will become the politicians themselves rather than just rejecting politics outright. People who will run for Planning Boards, City Councils, School Boards etc. People who will stay engaged and hold their representatives accountable at all levels – to advocate for what they want to see. Saying “you need to find a hobby” is the exact opposite of that. We need more engaged people not less.

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AJ March 1, 2017 at 6:41 am

Marc, I dont disagree with your comments on being involved. What I tell Geoff is that he needs to be more respectful and not be negative about absolutely everything. Also, there is more interesting things going on in the world than watching if my neighbor went up an extra foot or if his project has 9 parking spots instead of the required 10…come on!!

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Geoff Page Geoff Page March 1, 2017 at 9:28 am

And, I would suggest there are more interesting things in this world. I think you might want to take some of the advice you keep giving me and find something more constructive to do than following me around in the comments section.

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Marc Snelling Marc Snelling March 2, 2017 at 6:20 am

I don’t see a lack of respect. All politics is local and in OB the height limit and parking are a big deal. The value of a property can change significantly due to these issues. They are the kinds of issues that lead to packed planning board meetings. Tell the people who go to the meetings, that there are more interesting things to be concerned about than height, parking, and the value of their property. When neighbors need a forum to hash out their differences, people with a knowledge of the details are invaluable.

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AJ March 2, 2017 at 6:44 am

The thing is Marc, these people at these meeting THINK they know what they are talking about but they usually dont. They think they are defending their property values but in turn they are actually not. Allowing for new buildings around your property will only raise property values. Let me give you some perspective as to how important the subject matter of these meetings are. They average 20-40 people at most, there is 50,000 that live in that area. Most people dont waste their time with this crap.

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Marc Snelling Marc Snelling March 2, 2017 at 7:42 am

Most don’t come to the meetings until it effects them directly. The whole reason these boards exist in the first place is people demanding to be heard on these issues in the 70s.

The devil is in the details. Not all buildings are the same. For example I sit on a board where we had two projects come up recently. One a four-story apartment building, half a block from my house, in a ‘traditional mainstreet’ zone. There was very little controversy/interest in that project. Another was a rezone to build an 8-story apartment building next to single family homes. The new apartment building would have shaded the neighbors houses’ until 2-3pm every day. What were private back yards would now have dozens of patios looking down on them. A hundred plus people in the neighborhood came to meetings, organized, and the project was eventually shelved. It was shelved because people like Geoff took the time to read reams of reports and plans to identify the problems the project had. The value of these houses may have been raised in terms of selling it to a developer to build more apartments, but it certainly didn’t raise the value for using them as family homes. ‘Value’ is a relative term.

The way people learn is to go to meetings and interact with others.

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Judy Swink February 28, 2017 at 9:04 am

The San Diego Coastal Height Limit of 30 feet was established by a citizens’ initiative and can only be modified by another City-wide vote. I don’t understand how it can be legal for anyone, especially City staff, to make exceptions without a City-wide public vote just because “someone” mistakenly issued a permit for construction which violates that Citizen-established height limit. Seems like the basis for a lawsuit against the City to me. Anyone up for that?

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Geoff Page Geoff Page February 28, 2017 at 9:37 am

Judy, some of us are working in that direction. If you would like to be part of it, I’ll keep your name on a list in case more help is needed.

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Judy Swink February 28, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Thanks, Geoff. We need to make clear that the 30′ coastal height limit cannot be changed by administrative or legislative decisions. Six or seven years ago, staff attempted to argue that the State’s new (at that time) law requiring a range of bonuses for adding more affordable housing units and even put language in the draft zoning code to that effect. We were able to beat that back but we need to keep eyes open for *any* attempt to exceed that citizen-imposed coastal height limit.

You, I and others may not always be here to push back when there are attempts to do so. Might it be helpful to go to court to get a ruling on that to wave at city staff when they try to ignore our citizens initiative?

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Geoff Page Geoff Page February 28, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Judy, the key issue we are now fighting and what we may need to sue over is that the Development Services Department believes that Proposition D allows a developer to build up an artificial grade and then measure 30 feet, not measure from existing grade. They have taken this to the absurdity of saying you can build planters four feet or more high and measure from the inside of the planter as they call that “finished grade.” At this point, there seems to be little recourse but to the courts. We are working to get an opinion from our new city attorney now that the oddly coiffed shill has finally left the building. If that is not favorable, then we will need to get an outside opinion.

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AJ March 1, 2017 at 6:39 am

Judy, eveeeeerybody was wrong about the 30 foot height limit….its 40 and it always has been…simply 40 no tricks….Now they just changed it to 30.
Good luck on that lawsuit…you will loose.

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Judy Swink March 1, 2017 at 5:30 pm

AJ – the Coastal Height Limit Overlay Zone per the 1972 citizens initiative limits structures west of I-5 is a maximum of 30 feet (with limited exceptions in and adjacent to downtown SD).

See http://docs.sandiego.gov/municode/MuniCodeChapter13/Ch13Art02Division05.pdf – page 3 of 4 lays this out.
§132.0505
Coastal Height Limit
(a) Notwithstanding any section to the contrary, no building or addition to a building shall be constructed with a height in excess of thirty feet within the Coastal Zone of the City of San Diego.

The 40′ height limit you may be thinking of is east of I-5 in the Bay Park area of Clairemont and is a legislatively imposed height limit which can be changed by a vote of the City Council. The 30-foot Coastal Height Limit, based on the 1972 initiative, cannot be changed without a citywide public vote.

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AJ March 2, 2017 at 6:41 am

Here the thing Judy, that area in Roseville is not in coastal. By that area I mean the area where this projects are being built. It is not coastal there…check again. EVERYBODY was up in arms and WRONG. No surprise.

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Geoff Page Geoff Page March 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

There are two “coastal” areas that people often confuse. There is the coastal area that was protected by Prop D that established the 30-foot height limit. Roseville falls into that area. Then, there is the coastal zone that is under the purview of the California Coastal Commission and that is a narrower area along the coast line. Roseville does not fall into that area. But, the Municipal Code “fix” that the city created only to avoid lawsuits falls in both the Prop D area and the coastal zone. The Coastal Commission has to provide an opinion on the new MC language for that area, which will not happen until late spring or early summer. Everyone was up in arms CORRECTLY, they were not wrong at all. Once again, you a re chiming in on an issue you clearly do not understand.

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AJ March 2, 2017 at 2:39 pm

You are wrong on the height on Roseville. It was 40 feet legally. Why do you think they are now CHANGING it to 30. The wording in the municipal code allowed for 40 feet.

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Geoff Page Geoff Page March 3, 2017 at 11:17 am

No, I am not. The zoning table says a building can be 40 for that zone. But, in order to know how to measure that 40 feet, it is necessary to go to the measurement section of the Municipal Code where you will see that Prop D governs height in that particular area. You can have a 40-foot tall building in an area with that zoning as long as it is not in the Prop D area. The “change” the city orchestrated is a footnote that just tells the reader to go to the measurement section where they changed nothing. The footnote says 30 feet but that is already a requirement in the measurement section.

I’m not commenting to answer your comment that shows you don’t know the issue but because you have put out incorrect information and I don’t want anyone to believe your information is correct.

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Judy Swink February 28, 2017 at 7:05 pm

Geoff – I thought that artificial grade issue was addressed and disallowed more than 20 years ago when I still lived in Mission Beach. There were those who were building up a pad in order to achieve a building taller than allowed by the grade adjacent to the parcel built up. Worth some research. I can look into it but not until after March 4 when my out of town company returns home.

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Geoff Page Geoff Page March 1, 2017 at 9:23 am

Judy – This is a new wrinkle and it corresponds with the appointment of a land use attorney to head up the Development Services Department about three years a go. His name is Robert Vacchi and he came from an aggressive land use law firm downtown. He is using an interpretation from the early 1980s by the then city attorney and that opinion is flawed. Up until his arrival, the measurement was from existing grade. He firmly believes that Prop D allows this build up and that is what some of us are now fighting.

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