During Raucous Meeting Peninsula Planning Board Votes to Oppose Any Development of Famosa Canyon

by on August 30, 2019 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

The Peninsula Community Planning Board took a stand on Wednesday, August 28, as a result of intense community pressure.  The PCPB voted to oppose development on what has been referred to as the Famosa Canyon site on the south side of Famosa Blvd. across from Bill Cleator Park.

The vote came at a special meeting called by the PCPB at the Point Loma Library to discuss just one topic, the San Diego Housing Commission plans to build 78 affordable housing units on that piece of open land.  Dedicated PCPB volunteers and community members devoted hours of time and effort during the month of August in five subcommittees discussing the site and collecting community input.

This work culminated in the special meeting during one of the months the PCPB does not usually meet.  The meeting was raucous, heavily attended, and covered by several news stations. The PCPB gave the public six advertised chances in August to speak up about this site at several different times and different places, and the PCPB is to be commended for this amazing outreach effort.

Opposition to this project is spear-headed by residents of Park Point Loma, the complex that backs up to the Famosa site on the east side. They have organized and have been fighting the project for about a year ever since they first heard about it, learning that it was moving along with no community input.  They packed each subcommittee meeting and the special meeting on Wednesday.  It was actually standing room only in the large library meeting room.

All photos by Geoff Page.

PCPB Chair Robert Goldyn first explained that all of the comments from all of the subcommittee meetings were recorded and would be presented to the San Diego Housing Commission. In the interest of time, and because there was such a large crowd, Goldyn asked that people at the special meeting try to limit their comments to anything new they had to say.  But, in classic public meeting behavior, he was ignored, and people just repeated the complaints they had already voiced.

Goldyn also explained that the meeting’s purpose was to gather public comment and for the PCPB to eventually take a vote on the matter, but he stressed that there was no actual project proposal before the board.  The Housing Commission does not have a specific designed proposal for the site but has made it clear they want to build 78 affordable units there. In fact, there has yet to be seen a published Request for Proposals for the site.

The PCPB set up an ad hoc subcommittee at the regular monthly meeting in July to look at this one issue.  Additionally, the Long Range Planning, Traffic and Transportation, Project Review, and Parks and Rec subcommittees met in August to discuss this one issue and take input from the community.  The minutes for these meetings can be seen on the PCPB website’s Committee page.

The result of the months long effort was a 17-page document compiled by community member Cameron Havlik, a co-chair of the Ad Hoc subcommittee.  Havlik is not a board member but his wife is. The document consisted of a dense three-page letter mostly made up of Executive Summaries of each of the five subcommittee meetings.  It concluded with this statement, in bold print:

 “the PCPB does not support any habitational development of site 428/ Famosa Canyon”. 

The letter can be seen here .

The letter portion of the long document – addressed to the San Diego Housing Commission’s President and Chief Executive Officer Richard C. Gentry and all city council members and the mayor were copied – was read out loud by board member Margaret Virissimo.  She said the letter was on the PCPB website and anyone with a device could read along with her, but the letter was not there.  It was frankly impossible to follow without a written copy.

Public comment began with a brave young girl who appeared to be 12 to 14 years old who spoke passionately about greed and all the wildlife in the canyon.  She made a second impassioned, very impassioned, little speech at the end of the comments. She was amazingly composed considering that she was speaking to a roomful of 100 adults.

The following public comments touched on the usual issues: traffic, density, the environment, over development, and quality of life.

One man asked if it was “affordable” or “low income” housing.  Board member David Dick, who worked for the Housing Commission many years ago, gave a cogent explanation of “rent restricted housing.”  He explained that the developer would be bound by rent restrictions.

Dick also explained how there were several levels of income to qualify for different projects.  This one has been described as “workforce” housing and the income level of people who qualify for that are set by tables showing percentages of the median income for a family of four in San Diego.

Other comments were:

  • Compromise and use half of the land for units and half for a park;
  • Not fair to folks who saved and worked to buy a home in Point Loma and then to subsidize others to be able to live here and not have earned it.  This was one of the very few comments that were directly opposed to the affordable housing project more than for open space.
  • Save our wetland because there is a claim that part of the land is a wetland, although no documentation of this has been seen;
  • There is a fault line under Nimitz Blvd;
  • Too much traffic now and getting out of Point Loma in an emergency will be impossible.

As can be seen, the comments were uniformly negative and valid concerns.  Only one brave person got up to speak in favor of building the housing and the treatment he received was shameful as it illustrated that ugliness clearly exists in Point Loma despite what some may believe.

Jerry Lohla

Jerry Lohla, former member of the PCPB and retired from the Housing Commission, gamely stepped to the front and tried to explain why he supported the housing.  He tried to provide information in answering one person’s question about how much parking would be provided. Lohla explained that the threshold for “affordable” is when a family spends no more than 30% of its income on rent or a mortgage plus utilities.  He said many families now pay from 50% to 60% of their income, plus utilities.  Lohla said the $1,000 to $1,500 monthly savings for a family can make a world of difference.

Lohla was composed, calm, and not at all aggressive but he was treated very badly by many in the audience.  As a former chair of the PCPB, it was all this reporter could do to resist jumping in and banging heads.  But, that was Goldyn’s job and he made a valiant effort to keep the audience at bay.  It was a sorry spectacle to witness in a community that has the outward appearance of peace and love.  It looked like social media come alive.

Once the community comments concluded, Goldyn turned to the board for comments.  The comments went as follows.

Robert Tripp Jackson said this was the wrong place for this project.

Fred Kosmo said traffic issues and open space mattered a lot and he supported the letter. Kosmo made the motion to approve the letter that was seconded first by Jackson who then withdrew so that Virissimo could be the second on record for reasons that were not at all apparent.

Mandy Havlik mentioned the wetland issue.

Lucky Morrison said it was time to tell outsiders that “There is no more room at the inn,” in classic isolationist fashion. Morrison also repeated a commonly known fact that developers run San Diego.

Don Sevrens got up to “correct” something that Jerry Lohla said and to express his passionate support for the letter.

Eva Schmitt asked “where are all the agency people they invited?”

Jim Hare explained that he could not support the motion because they had nothing specific to look at and he believed any proposal deserved an honest appraisal.

David Dick said he would not vote to approve the letter because there were inaccuracies in the letter concerning claims that the property is part of Famosa Slough, that there was a problem in how the property was obtained by the Housing Commission, and that the property is designated park land or open space.

Dick also explained that the purpose of the Ad Hoc subcommittee was not to recommend what it had but was to review the feasibility studies and gather public comments.  Dick said there was a “false urgency” in what was happening because no project was yet proposed.  Dick objected also because he said there are processes to follow and this letter did not do that.

Dick was treated almost as badly by the audience as was Lohla and all he tried to do was provide information and offer his opinion on the letter.  He said repeatedly that he had not made a decision on development versus preserving of open space because nothing concrete was yet proposed to make a decision on.  It was another shameful display by many area residents.  It appeared that not agreeing immediately with the crowd meant you were an enemy.  Dick and Lohla were both accused of ulterior motives based on absolutely nothing.

Korla Eaquinta expressed similar sentiments to Dick’s and said she could not support the letter as written.

Kosmo’s motion passed with a vote of eight for and three opposed.

Some of the key points in the letter were:

  • Lack of open space and park land in the community;
  • It would disturb a wetland characterized as “one of the last coastal wetlands in Southern California”;
  • Return some of the acreage that was given away without public notice;
  • Flawed process leaving out the PCPB and the community;
  • Buy out the property ad make it park space;
  • Density;
  • Flawed feasibility study;
  • Traffic increase, other new project in the area not included in traffic study;
  • High voltage wires in the way;
  • Parking;
  • Impacts to migratory birds and monarch butterflies.

The letter concluded with:

“Due to identified shortfalls in the feasibility study as outlined in Encl 3 and the executive summary of the TTSC, environmental concerns with respect to preservation of the disturbed coastal wetland, preservation of the grove of eucalyptus trees for monarch butterfly habitat, lack of park space in our community, legality of the 1.86 acre transfer of land from San Diego Parks and Recreation to the San Diego Housing Commission and to the overwhelming community opposition to any development on site 428/Famosa Canyon the PCPB does not support any habitational development of site 428/Famosa Canyon.”

Based on years of experience with the board as a member and an observer, this reporter agreed with Dick, Eaquinta, and Hare.  The letter was too long, too complicated and too all over the map.  The key issue really is open space versus development.

The opponents are between a rock and a hard place because their opposition is easily cast as being against affordable housing.  While this may be true for some of the opponents, it was clearly not true for many others who enjoy that open land.  The point was made repeatedly that the opponents were not against affordable housing but that is an accusation they have to overcome, kind of like the old question “Have you stopped beating your wife.”  Any answer is a problem.

The problem is that the letter includes all kinds of reasons why not to develop the site, giving the Housing Commission specific targets it can shoot down.  The lack of parkland argument is shot down by referring to all the parks nearby, Cleator, Collier, Dusty Rhodes, and Robb Field.  The characterization of the wetland is very much overblown when it was cast as the last wetland left in Southern California.  That kind of hyperbole is not helpful.  The question of land ownership is murky but has been studied intensely by attorneys with the conclusion that the Housing Commission does own the land.  The high voltage wires are just an engineering and construction issue.

The idea of preserving open space is a noble one and deserves serious consideration.  That alone should be the focus, listing all kinds of excuses including the kitchen sink, just complicates the key issue of saving the last piece of open space in the Peninsula from development.  Additionally, having the residents immediately adjacent to the land head the effort invites the accusation of Nimbyism and elitism that also clouds the issue.  This is an issue for many more people than just those who live next to the property.

Cooler heads did not prevail and the push to approve the letter steam-rolled along on emotions.  Letting emotions rule when trying to oppose an entity like the Housing Commission is self-defeating because the other side is not emotional at all. Dick said that a letter like this will get little attention and no action and said the PCPB needs to personally engage the politicians in a meaningful way to get them on board for preserving the space.  Having dealt with a great deal of professional correspondence in the course of this reporter’s work, a letter of this length and density will not get the reading the community hopes for.  Dick’s suggestion is how things should proceed.

In the end, the opponents were happy and rejoiced in a victory by getting the PCPB to take a stand.  Unfortunately, one final bit of ugliness came after the winning vote from an audience member named Julieanna Piatek who began her comment by explaining that she had lived in Alpine for the last 30 years but was born and raised in Point Loma’s Portuguese community.  She concluded by telling everyone to remember the three who voted against approving the letter and telling everyone to vote them off the board.  The opponents need to reel in this kind of intolerance because it colors the whole effort.

 

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar MC August 31, 2019 at 9:18 am

Classic nimby behavior. Oh we support more housing just not here or now or ever. Affordable sounds so icky.

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Avatar korla eaquinta August 31, 2019 at 12:38 pm

Thank you Geoff for that fair and comprehensive summary of the PCPB special meeting. To be clear, I am in favor of and support OPEN SPACE!
?Ms Piatek ‘threatened” the board more than once that evening and the treatment of Jerry Lohla by this “crowd” was unacceptable and abhorrent. We don’t have to agree but we need to be civil and at least listen to all information. How better to fight your opponent than with correct, inside information?
?I must commend Cameron Havlik as no-one knows the issues and history better than he. He spent countless hours composing all this information and worked hard on that letter. Unfortunately the perceived urgency did not allow the board to revise that letter. I call it “hit and run.” Sort of like when you start talking to your teenager and after the first 30 seconds they stop listening. We needed a letter that; “hit” the position quickly then added the supporting documents after.

I appreciate the time EVERYONE spent on this issue. The board has spent countless hours. Two special board meetings, 6 recent committee meetings and I remember staying until 9:30 and 10:00 on many regular board meetings. I also respect the communities time and passion.

We will see how this plays out. Hopefully with some much needed Open Space!

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Avatar triggerfinger September 3, 2019 at 6:36 pm

Ms. Piatek should keep her ugliness in Alpine. Perhaps Margaret can be the adult and disinvite her out of town goon from future meetings.

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