It Was 5 Years Ago When the San Diego Planning Commission Tried to Cut-Out the Very Tool Ocean Beach Uses to Prevent Over-Development

by on May 14, 2019 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach

At the most recent OB Planning Board meeting, I had to do a double-take when an older gentleman came into the meeting room late and was sitting in the very back. It was David Steffens – a man OB planners knew 5 years ago when the OB Community Plan Update was up for approval with the Planning Commission and City Council.

But no one on the Board that night – except for one – knew who Steffens was. He had come to the meeting to talk about problems with people living in vans at Dog Beach parking lot.

Yet – in an ironic twist, he was there that night to ostensibly aid the Planning Board, operating under the OB Community Plan, in figuring out how to deal with the problem. It was ironic, as I recognized Steffens as the man who led the opposition to the city approving OB’s update to its Community Plan five years ago. He owns one of the McMansions just off the park. Five years ago, he led the effort to squash OB’s tool in controlling over-development, the low floor-area-ration that OB’s Community Plan uses.

After the meeting, I tried to explain all of this to some of the remaining Board members – and realized in a near-jaw-dropping moment – that there was no one left on the Board who was around during that period 5 years ago – except for Jane Gawronski. There has been at least one entire turn-over of the Planning Board during this last half decade.

So, I decided to repost the following article, published in May of 2014, as a recounting of those heady days back then when Planning Board members and many OBceans worked to have the plan approved, only after gathering and submitting 4,000 signatures in support of OB’s floor-area-ration, the tool we use to control more McMansions on the beach.

Five years ago the San Diego Planning Commission tried to cut-out that same mechanism. During the hearing, the Planning Commissioners dissed OB’s community leaders while seeming to bend over backwards for David Steffens. Here’s the story.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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