San Diego City Attorney Puts Brakes on Changes Proposed for Neighborhood Planning Committees

by on January 3, 2020 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

OB Planning Board, June 3, 2015

Mara Elliott, San Diego’s City Attorney, has pushed the brakes down on a series of changes that have been speeding through the bureaucratic hoops as proposals for the city’s neighborhood planning committees.

In a legal analysis certain to frustrate those forces pushing for the changes, Elliott’s office stated that city policies actually have granted the groups an independent status that may force limitations to any new rules imposed on them.

Proponents of the new rules claim they will boost the quality of input by community planners on housing projects by making them “more robust, organized and demographically diverse.”

The city has 42 community planning committees, each nominally made up of members elected as representatives of their communities and each with only the power to make recommendations to the city on proposed development projects and infrastructure improvements.

The complaints about the current status of these groups are that they are not diverse enough, do not have sufficient numbers of renters, women or members of minority groups, are not democratic enough, not representative enough and are not transparent enough. Whew!

Underneath these complaints are others: the neighborhood groups oppose too many development projects, they slow the process down making it more expensive for the developers. They’re branded as “NIMBYs” and occasionally are accused of being racist.

Now certainly, some of these complaints are valid. Some are not representative enough of the residents of the communities they claim to represent. From our experience of observation, there’s at least a couple that deserve that mantle. One of them is out in Mission Valley, where the last time we looked, had very few residents on its board. The Midway District planning committee used to be absent of tenants – but now have four. Other complaints and recommendations, however, are over-the-top and actually stink of being overly-developer favored.

The City has been frustrated with planning groups for years – no, decades. The city never really wanted them, and only grudgingly made way for them beginning in the mid-1970s, as they were grassroots derived; they evolved out of the neighborhood concerns over unbridled development, out-of-control developers and projects that pulled down the quality of life in those communities.

It’s even worse than that. For years, the City provided the local planning group volunteers with Planning Department personnel who would attend meetings, give advice and were fairly accessible and available. That has stopped. The Planning Department – which was drastically shredded a few years back – no longer sends reps to the monthly committee meetings.

Another problem not cited by those who are complaining is the subservient nature of the Department of Development Services to developers and – at least in Ocean Beach – the denial or the ignoring of community plans and the decisions of planning board members. There is a case in OB where the city planners totally ignored the Ocean Beach Community Plan which has survived since the mid-1970s, and which was recently unanimously re-approved by the San Diego City Council in 2014 – in their lopsided authorization for a project that didn’t meet the requirements of the OB Plan.

Another example of the city ignoring planning groups happened to the Midway District planners. The mayor came out and make a huge announcement in conjunction with the Navy over the transit center they want to see – which would be in the Midway – but the mayor never approached the community planners prior to his beeg announcement.

A central issue for Elliott is whether members of planning committees are city employees, whether they should continue to be indemnified against legal suits, and whether they should make financial disclosures to avoid conflicts of interest.

And with the housing crisis in front of every politician, tenant, home owner and news reporter, the local planning committees become easy targets to focus on as the source of all problems. Their NIMBYism hurts affordability we’re told and everybody, of course,  now wants affordability in housing.

No one mentions that giant developers and hotel-empire kings have ruled this town for centuries, that developers have pretty much run away with their projects without much concern from politicians and city planning bureaucrats. The profitability of housing projects have – and still is – their main concern.

Certainly, Ocean Beach is not a good place to look in order to figure out how to improve planning committees. The OB group grew out of a community’s grassroots struggle for representation in the development process and forced the city to allow a democratically-elected panel of community volunteers – even renters – to be able to review projects and give recommendations to the city. OB board members are mostly elected on a district basis where OB has been divided into 7 or 8 districts with 2 reps from each district. (Recently it added “at-large” members.)

Plus, OB is one of the most dense neighborhoods in the city. Every lot has been developed – or has eyes on them.

One of the complaints from the county grand jury criticism is that community planning committees are not “professional” enough. This is an absurd complaint. By their very intended nature, these volunteer groups are not professional, and thank god for that.  They’re supposed to be made up of community residents, property owners and business owners. Ordinary people.

Another complaint is that they’re not transparent enough. For some committees, this is a valid concern. But so is our government in general. We’re all concerned about the transparency of our government – there’s not enough of it. Even for our City Council and for our un-elected Planning Commission, made up of mayoral appointments. Why do our city council members vote against the public and vote to allow controversial projects to be voted on in primaries? The Convention Center comes to mind.

The city council recently overruled the decision of the OB Planning Board on that boardwalk at Dog Beach and spent over a million bucks on something that could have cost much less and been more effective.

Another complaint is that planning committees block housing projects “too aggressively”. I’m certain the vote of the Peninsula Community Planning Board on the Famosa Canyon project comes to mind.

For more of Elliott’s concerns (she is running for re-election), see these :

San Diego Union-Tribune 1/02/20

San Diego Union-Tribune 12/08/19

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Dr. Mark Olsen D.C. January 4, 2020 at 10:24 am

What OB needs is clean, available bathrooms! Hark the Angels sing upon my annual christmas visit to OB, i found nowwhere to drop a duece, so i had to do a public squat and use leaves, thanks alot OB, i did not spend any money in OB that day, but that was my contribution.

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Avatar Dike Anyiwo January 8, 2020 at 4:05 pm

Hi Frank and OB Rag team. My name is Dike Anyiwo and I’d like to correct some inaccuracies in this piece. The Midway Community Planning Group actually has four renters who sit on the board, including myself. Of our allotted 12 seats, we actually make up 33.3% of the group. I’d appreciate it if you corrected that line in this piece.

Thank you.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie January 9, 2020 at 5:01 pm

Dike – okay, thanks for the update. I made the correction to the Midway Planning committee comment.

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