Special Hearing on Famosa / Nimitz Property to Be Held by Peninsula Planners – June 14

by on May 21, 2018 · 1 comment

in Ocean Beach

San Diego Housing Commission Met With Many Questions From Community Members

By Geoff Page

Once again, the Peninsula Community Planning Board’s regular monthly meeting May 19 provided entertainment value for those who attended.  And, this time, it was also an excellent illustration of what a planning board is meant to be.

The controversy over that piece of open land off Famosa Blvd. across from Cleator Park more or less erupted.  The often heated discussion took up about an hour and a half of the meeting, far longer than originally intended.

The meeting at the Point Loma Library started at 6:30 as it usually does. The new chair, Robert Goldyn, rearranged the agenda and set the action items for applicants at the beginning of the meeting for the first time in a long time. (In past years, applicants have had to sit through a lot of other things before the board got to them, which made no sense because the board’s primary reason for being is to review land use projects.)

The first Action Item was titled Famosa & Nimitz Property/Public Open Space” brought by community member Catherine “Katie” Bendixen.

There was also an Information Item later on the agenda titled “SDHC Update Peninsula Famosa/Nimitz Property,” SDHC standing for the San Diego Housing Commission. During the initial agenda approval vote, it was decided to move the SDHC presentation in front of the action item in order to have a better understanding of the issue.

Board member Jerry Lohla introduced the SDHC presentation. Lohla referred to the June 15, 2017, letter the board had approved last year encouraging the development of “Affordable/Workforce” housing. The letter was sent to Councilmember Zapf and the SDHC.

In the letter is a picture of the Famosa Blvd. property and the letter stated “The PCPB encourages this site for such development,” meaning affordable/workforce housing, “along with support for additional locations throughout the Peninsula.” This position was a big point of contention at the board meeting.

This discussion of housing is now focusing on the term “workforce” housing, which is different from low income housing or affordable housing.  Workforce housing, when explained, sounds much more palatable to the ear and that may be why that term was used most of the time.  Workforce housing is intended to be housing that is affordable for people who work within the community but find it hard to buy a property or afford the rents in the community. The proponents stress that the housing is for folks like fire fighters, police officers, nurses, and teachers.  These people have good jobs but find it difficult to live within the area of Point Loma.  And, these are respectable people.

The basic idea is that people who work in the community should have a way to live in that community, even if it means public subsidy.  One of the more well known examples of this problem – as put forth by the presenter – would be the ski resorts where the people who service the public that comes to ski, cannot afford to live in the resorts. These people have to live, often, many miles away and have dangerous winter weather commutes.

Yet, it is hard to understand how this applies to Point Loma, when the areas that are more affordable to live in are not that far away and do not present a daunting commute. A good explanation for why these people have to live in the community they may serve was not well articulated at the meeting.

The SDHC spoke first and explained the history of the property and its plans for it.  The land was part of a big piece of land originally granted to the city by DC Collier “for the children of San Diego” as dedicated park back in 1909.  In 1956, there was a public vote to remove a big piece of the land granted as park and turn it over to the city to sell if it wished.  Collier – and then Correia Junior High School and the YMCA are part of the property the city voted to remove from the park designation.  According to the SDHC, 74 percent of the vote was in favor or removing the land from its park designation.

In 1981, the city sold the Famosa property to the San Diego Housing Commission with a promise that 78 affordable housing units be placed there.

The property has remained empty for 47 years.  Something jump-started the SDHC to get going on the “affordable” housing project and it may well have been the recent effort by community activists to allow development of an outdoor off-road bicycle pump track.  A pump track is a set of banked turns and other features ridden by cyclists.  Such a track has appeared periodically over the years at the Famosa site constructed by parents and their kids and periodically, their handiwork has been demolished because it is not permitted on the land.

A few years ago, proponents of the bike track came to the PCPB and received support for their effort to have the land transferred back to a park designation so the pump track could be legally permitted. That effort apparently failed when the SDHC said it would only part with the land if it was paid full market value for the five acre parcel and that was the killer.  Tracks were still constructed and used but all that came to head recently as parents stood in front of equipment sent by the SDHC to destroy the latest effort. The confrontations were picked up by the local news media and reported on in the OB Rag.

The SDHC explained that it was planning to build the 78 units and that it was currently performing feasibility studies.  Biological, financial, architectural reviews and others have been done, traffic, seismic, and geotechnical reviews are under way now. The SDHC said it would be back to discuss the findings of the various reviews.  The spokesperson for the SDHC often sounded like a politician stating that they were community advocates and that they liked open space but the comments sounded self-serving.  The community was not taking any of this well.

The room was full of people opposed to the housing idea and for keeping the area as a park or open space.  The distinction seems to be that a park may have some development in it such as play areas, restrooms, and other recreational items.  Open space is land that is designated for minimal development such as pathways and informative signing.  The opponents were vocal, to put it mildly.  The meeting became a challenge for the chair at times as people shouted out comments and interrupted others speaking.

The best question was about how it would be decided who gets one of the 78 units.  It is apparently based on income levels.  A family of four with certain level of income can apply and qualify for units with rents that are lower than the existing market value.  The income level would have to be below an index of the Area Medium Income or AMI.  It appeared that the project is aiming for people at 80 percent of the AMI but may contain a mix of people in the 65 or 70 percent categories.  The SDHC said it will not include people in the lowest categories considered as “Extremely Low Income.”  Go to this link to see the chart,.

An obvious question was asked about the income system, what to do with someone who begins to make more money, are they booted out?  The answer was that there is a range so income could rise to a point.  A question that was not asked was how will the incomes of families in 78 units be monitored to ensure only people who need the units are living there.  It would seem that a very personally invasive system would need to be set up so that the SDHC could constantly monitor the finances of all 78 families.

The SDHC explained that the project will have a 55-year covenant that will control the rents and keep them affordable. According to the advocates, this kind of arrangement with a rent restriction, results is very good quality construction that blends well with the neighborhood.  This would seem illogical and it was not clearly articulated at the meeting but there will be another chance to ask questions very soon.

Members of the audience peppered the SDHC with questions and the main theme seemed to be that the public felt the SDHC was plowing ahead with a project but was not forthcoming with information about it.  Board member David Dick summed up what he believed were the three positions in the room, people who wanted to keep the site as open space, people opposed to having affordable housing there, and people who were opposed to over development.

It was pointed out repeatedly that Point Loma needs open space, there is very little left.  There was also clearly an anti-affordable housing element in the room best exemplified by one homeowner adjacent to the property who told the room that if they liked it so much build in their backyard and not his.  He expressed concern about his property value once this is built.

Unfortunately, when an issue arises like this, members of the public come to planning board meetings for the first time and are frustrated by the order that has to be imposed.  This makes running a meeting a big challenge. The chair made a good effort to give the public lots of time to be heard.

The action item put forth by Catherine Bendixon about this property was a request that the PCPB rescind the letter from June of 2017 that recommended this property be used for workforce housing.  Ms. Bendixon spoke at length about her research into the title of the property and various questions that were raised by the documents she found.  She pointed out that the 1956 ballot proposal about what to do with some of the park land contained the name of a specific, private developer. She argued that, since that developer had never developed the land, the 1956 vote was voided and the land should revert to the 1909 document designation as park land.

The SDHC brought an attorney with them who then rebutted Ms. Bendixon’s claims about property ownership citing, and holding up various documents.  The SDHC attorney said there was no question that the SDHC owned the land.

At this point, board member David Dick spoke up.  He had offered to assist Ms. Bendixon with help if he could at the previous meeting. Dick is an attorney who works in the area of commercial and residential development, property acquisition and financing. He stated that he had eight years of experience on the housing commission too. He explained that he read all of the documents and provided what was clearly an objective view of just the property ownership issue.  He recounted the history from 1909 to 1956 to 1981 and said he was convinced that the SDHC did have full ownership of the land.  He said that Ms. Bendixon’s idea that the name of the developer on the 1956 ballot proposal would not be enough to overturn a public vote.

Boardmember Dick said that the only recourse was to go back to city council and try to get the land turned back into park land because it would take a public vote to get this done.  He also cautioned the community saying that, if the SDHC cannot do what it wants to do, it could sell the land to private developers and the land could be filled with buildings.

Dick ended his comments with a motion that the PCPB hold a Special Meeting to discuss this issue because it was clear there was great interest and more public discussion was needed.  The SDHC would be at the meeting as well as the opponents and the entire meeting would be devoted to this topic.  The hope is that there will be more of a chance for the SDHC to explain its plans in detail and more of a chance for people to ask questions and get educated.  The board vote was unanimous.  This was an admirable development for the PCPB, special meetings are a rarity and require attendance by the whole board.  The open discussion that was allowed to go on considerably beyond the scheduled time and the decision to hold the special meeting are all what a planning board is for, a place for the community to he heard.

The Special PCPB meeting will be held on June 14 at the Point Loma Library.  An agenda will come out in about two weeks, look for it on the www.pcpb.net website, on the social media site Nextdoor, the “PCPB Peninsula Community Planning Board” Facebook page, and it will be posted on the Library door 24 hours in advance of the meeting.

North Chapel in Liberty Station

Near the end of the long discussion about the Famosa property, a news cameraman began to set up next to this reporter who commented that he had missed all the action and asked what he was there for. He replied that he was there for the North Chapel in Liberty Station issue.  The chapel discussion turned out not to be controversial.  The issue is an historic chapel in Liberty Station that the McMillin company says is underused and wants to remodel into a restaurant.  To do so, two church congregations that use the building would be booted out.

The opponents of McMillin’s plans want the chapel preserved as a church and many made emotional speeches about the history and significance of the chapel. They came to the PCPB looking for help and received it in a unanimous vote for a letter from the PCPB supporting the position of preserving the chapel.  The PCPB intended to include in the letter specific language stating “preserve all historic features and character of the chapel.”  This language was designed to enforce preservation of the benches and pews, some of the items already designated as historic.   The group has a petition for anyone interested in learning more or helping out.

City Tree Planting

Trees were the next interesting item on the agenda, specifically a presentation by the city’s tree department, https://www.sandiego.gov/trees.  The presentation stressed that planting trees was a part of the city’s climate action plan to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There is a goal of having 15 percent of urban tree canopy coverage by 2020 and 35 percent of tree canopy by 2035.  It was pointed out that for this to work, there needed to be tree planting on private property and the city is encouraging that.

Residents can ask for a tree to be planted in the public right-of-way by their house.  If they agree to care for the tree and water it, there is no cost. There are no current incentives for planting trees on private property other than encouragement in helping with the Climate Action goals.  The city’s website contains a link to a tree selection guide.  They mentioned that they no longer recommend palm trees for these locations.  There was a brief mention of what happens when one falls but quickly segued to what the real issue probably is, maintenance, palms need regular trimming.

Apparently, the current citywide canopy coverage stands at 13 percent so the city is not far from its 2020 goal.  They also mentioned that Point Loma is at 16 percent canopy cover and already exceeds the next goal of 15 percent.  The city explained it planted 600- 700 trees last year and stressed that the city could not do this alone because the city only plants on city property.

The city said it devoted six million dollars to maintenance for a year, a figure that sounded pretty low considering the size of this city.  Many in the community have believed there is a war on trees because of the inability to maintain them. The war, if there is one, is on very large, older trees that are costly to maintain and replacing them with younger and easier to maintain types of trees.

The thrust of the city’s tree presentation was to urge the community to plant more trees, a goal that most people find appealing.  The city is offering advice on doing this.  Some financial incentive would be nice but finding money for that would probably be a challenge, this one is really an appeal to the good in the public to pitch in and do something that will benefit everyone for many years.

Grand Jury Report on Community Planning Groups

There was some discussion of a grand jury report that looked into a citizen complaint alleging that planning groups deliberately delay hearing projects as a way of restricting growth.  The city’s planning director asked the planning boards for opinions on the report and the PCPB chair provided responses.  The accusation about delaying projects to restrict growth would not be accurate for the PCPB.  Despite its many foibles, the board has always been prompt about reviewing projects and making decisions. The full responses will probably be posted on the PCPB website soon.

Inappropriate Board Member Conduct Issue Swept Away

The last item of interest was an item titled “PCPB Discussion of Appropriate Board Member Conduct/Actions.”  This item was included to discuss the actions of board members during the recent election.  Complaints were filed against Margaret Virissimo and Don Sevrens before the election by this reporter and another as candidates for the Board.  An election challenge was filed that detailed actions by these sitting board members.  But, fate stepped in left this item unfulfilled.

In their defense, it was nearly 9:30 after a meeting that started at 6:30 so enthusiasm for taking this on was not there.  Additionally, the mood and manner of the board has improved dramatically since the change in leadership that occurred in April.  There was a relief that was apparent in the room and probably an unwillingness to ruin that by going through this unpleasantness, that and the general lack of desire to deal with confrontation.

So, the result was a decision not to discuss the transgressions at all.  It was disappointing that no discussion will be had.  Those who were at the center of the trouble, who did indeed seriously violate the planning board rules and exhibited a low character by campaigning against incumbent board members, get off without a scratch.  This kind of a reaction from the board looked as if the board condoned the actions of members who should have been publicly censored for actions that made the whole PCPB look ridiculous.  With no censorship of any kind, the PCPB has sent a message that tarnishes its reputation.

Police Shift Change

And lastly, the always enthusiastic Officer Surwilo along with his partner, gave a stirring explanation of the latest shift change for the officers in this area and delighted the room with his report that the police academy had just graduated 32 new police officers.  With his good-natured delivery, Surwilo is always an audience favorite and a favorite of this humble reporter as well.



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

editordude May 22, 2018 at 12:21 pm

This headline is misleading; it should have outlined the great and detailed reported by Geoff on the Peninsula planners’ meeting. Please read his report.


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