The End to San Diego’s Community Planning Groups As We Knew Them

by on September 20, 2022 · 29 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Geoff Page

Anyone not living in a cave these days recognizes that we – the citizens – are now in a parent-child relationship with the administration in this city of San Diego. And we are not the parent and we are to be seen and not heard.

There are stronger terms for this than parent-child, of course. But, that term seems to fit because it is how the administration sees it, and us. To that end, the city has just taken another big step toward silencing the children so it can do what is best for us all, without having to actually listen to us.

The just passed reforms of the community planning group system were done to gut the planning boards and, by doing so, muzzle one of the last places where citizens had a voice. The effect was cloaked in lofty goals of inclusion built on the lie that membership on planning boards was somehow denied to many.

The “others” being the sympathetic groups today, renters, women, people of color that all 42 planning boards have somehow clandestinely managed to exclude from seats on their boards. The sad thing is that a large group of some of these people was duped into supporting these “reforms” by a group called Circulate San Diego.

The Rag ran a story on November, 11, 2019, covering the Ocean Beach Planning Board meeting the previous week. It was in this story that the first view of what proponents of planning group reforms wanted, and who wanted them.

The OBPB’s website  has meeting documents going back several years and the results of the November 2019 meeting contain links to documents. The most telling document contains 31 recommendations for changes to the planning group system. Many of these ridiculous recommendations made it to the end.

An example of a ridiculous recommendation was:

20) Gather relevant demographic data of CPG board members in an audit immediately and require new CGP board members to complete a demographic survey at every election or time of appointment. The survey should include: Age, Business Owner or Property Owner, Ethnicity, Gender, Length of Residence, Neighborhood, Professional Background, Race, Religion, Renter or Owner, Years of Service on CPGs. (A recommendation from Democracy in Planning with major modifications by the taskforce).

Who would want to provide all that private information just o be on a volunteer board? Mat Wahlstrom, chair of the Uptown Planning Group stated it clearly, “It’s obvious the goal is to make serving on CPGs as powerless and onerous as possible to dissuade genuine community volunteers from serving.”

“Democracy in Planning” is a document created by Circulate San Diego. They made 11 of the 31 recommendations. Circulate represents the cycling community that cannot stand these advisory boards because the groups do not rubber stamp every cycling proposal that the cyclists want. They wanted the boards gutted and are delirious over what the city just passed.

So, what did pass.

The Staff Report provided the nuts and bolts. The biggest issue appeared to be the status of the planning groups. This effort is making it crystal clear that the planning groups are legally independent of the city. But, then the CPGs have to follow a whole set of rules the city is imposing. Bit of a headscratcher.

The City Attorney issued a report in 2019 warning that the structure of CPGs, as established by Council Policy 600-24, conflicted with the City Charter Section 43 that dealt with Advisory Boards and Committees.  Several options were provided for discussion about what to do that included amending and repealing long-standing Council Policy 600-24, “Standard Operating Procedures and Responsibilities of Recognized Community Planning.”

The City Attorney’s report stated:

Further, to ensure the independence of CPGs, we do not recommend that the Council expand the scope of defense and indemnification of CPGs beyond the specific claims as outlined in Ordinance O-19883. Indemnification should avoid City involvement in internal CPG disputes to preserve their independence. Although the City Attorney is available to assist City staff when legal issues arise with CPGs, providing legal advice directly to CPGs and their members on governance and operations could raise issues with the City Attorney’s obligations under the California Rules of Professional Conduct.

What is puzzling is that the city is making a great effort to ensure the CPGs are legally independent of the city yet the city will indemnify and defend CPG members under certain circumstances. It simply does not make sense if there is no legal connection.

The first step in “correcting” this recognition problem is to require all planning boards to now apply for, and seek, recognition from city council. In order to apply, the groups have to create an “Ethical Standards” document and a “Community Participation and Representation Plan” along with by-laws that have been properly amended to reflect the new changes.

Whew! So, groups of volunteers, not recognized by the city, have to get together and create these things and then ask to be in existence. This will guarantee that competing groups will form and apply to represent different areas, should be fun.

The applicants will also need to do this:

Consider designating seats for renters, stakeholders and business representatives to ensure voting members are representative of the broader community

While this says “consider,” a published Edit to Resolution-2023-87 states:

CPGs that apply for City Council recognition that demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion shall be given priority for recognition;

It does not say who the arbiter will be to decide which of the applying groups better demonstrates “a commitment to diversity.” But, we know.

This noble push for diversity is a smokescreen designed to satisfy critics who believe the planning groups intentionally keep people out. Nothing could be further from the truth; planning board members are democratically elected. No one has ever described exactly how these groups have been limiting participation, it is only an allegation.

One new rule removes a common requirement in almost all CPGS, the attendance requirement. The changes prohibit any attendance requirements in order to vote or run for a seat. The CPGs have foolishly believed candidates should show enough interest in a group to have at least attended one or two meetings in a year before running for a seat. Silly to require a candidate to have some idea what a meeting actually looks like or demonstrate previous interest. Right?

But, the Municipal Code changes really tell the story of how the city wants to mute CPG voices. Each change described below is about removing the CPGs from the process.

  • §86.0104 Angle Parking, removing a requirement that proposed angle parking installations be reviewed first by CPGs

It is unknown how much of an issue this is.

  •  §98.0510 Project Selection and Disbursement of Funds, removing a requirement that all projects using Housing Commission funds to be reviewed first by CPGs

This one is big, now the Housing Commission can do as it and the city pleases without bothering to listen to the public.

  •  §112.0503 Process Two, removing the extended period of time allowed for an appeal for Process Two projects to allow for CPG review and recommendation

The Municipal Code for a Process Two permit previously stated:

Decision Process. The designated staff person may approve, conditionally approve, or deny the application without a public hearing. The decision shall be made no less than 11 business days after the date on which the Notice of Future Decision is mailed to allow for sufficient time for public comment.

The extended period language that was struck was as follows:

This 11 business days minimum time frame for a staff decision will be extended by a period not to exceed an additional 20 business days to allow time for a recommendation by a recognized community planning group, if requested by the group’s chair, or the chair’s designee.

So, the permits can now be granted without a public hearing and without planning group reviews

  • §112.0602 Process CIP/Public Project-Two, removing the extended period of time allowed for an appeal of a Process Two CIP/Public Project to allow for CPG review and recommendation

This one also does not require a public hearing and also will no longer include planning group review.

  • §157.0203 Gaslamp Quarter Development Permit Procedures, removing the requirements of a CPG recommendation for Process Five development projects with certain deviations in Gaslamp Quarter

This one used to state the following, the lined-out wording is what is being removed:

The development shall be reviewed, and a recommendation provided by the planning group officially recognized by the City of San Diego, the Historical Resources Board, and the Planning Commission prior to consideration by the City Council.

  • §112.0203 Waiver of Fees or Deposits, removing the ability of CPGs to waive appeal fees

This last one is also a very big deal. Appeal fees have risen dramatically in recent years. This writer was involved in appeals only a few years ago when the fee was $100. Apparently, in an effort to discourage appeals, the city bumped the cost up tenfold. The CPGs did not have to pay the fee because the CPGs have no money.

By requiring the fee now, the incidence of appeals will fall dramatically, so one would believe. But, only certain appeals, planning group appeals. Here is what Councilmember Joe LaCava’s presentation to city council said about this “problem.”

60 project appeals filed in five year period 2017-2021
Of these, 12 were filed by Community Planning Groups
8 were filed by one CPG
4 by the other 41 CPGs

So, one CPG apparently caused the concern while the other 41 CPGs were largely silent providing an incredibly weak excuse for removing this planning group privilege from all 41 groups. And only 12 CPG appeals in five years hardly represents a terrible problem that needs correcting. This will have no effect on other appeals like the 48 appeals in La Cava’s presentation. This is like a using a sledgehammer to kill a single gnat.

Project Review

Here is the stated purpose of the CPGs, according to the city’s own website:

There has been long-standing citizen involvement in planning in the City of San Diego. The City Council adopted policies in the 1960s and 1970s that established and recognized community planning groups as formal mechanisms for community input in the land use decision-making processes. Community planning groups (CPG) provide citizens with an opportunity for involvement in advising the City Council, the Planning Commission, and other decision-makers on development projects, general or community plan amendments, rezonings and public facilities. The recommendations of the planning groups are integral components of the planning process, and are highly regarded by the City Council and by staff.

Now, Council Policy 600-24 states:

The City will endeavor to document CPG recommendations, including project review recommendations. The City will endeavor to notify CPGs of discretionary permits or actions located within their area.

“endeavor to document and “Endeavor to notify” the planning groups. Endeavor means to try. Does that read like a hard and fast rule for the city? Then this:

Private project applicants are not required by this policy to present their application before CPGs, although the City encourages applicants to conduct robust engagement with CPGs, the community, and project neighbors. Because CPGs are independent of the City, the City does not consider CPG hearings to be hearings as defined in California Government Code section 65905.5.

That is a “get-out-of-jail” card for developers and the fans of Circulate San Diego. Where once the review by the CPG was a requirement of the development process, it is now just an encouragement. Why would any developer waste time with this step when it is not a requirement? They won’t.

All of these changes are designed to help developers by streamlining the development process by removing the public from the process. Supporters of Circulate San Diego have been fooled into thinking these changes will lead to their utopia of affordable housing and density and a car-free world.

All the changes really do is put money in developer’s pockets – the mayor’s support group –  and free them to manipulate the system without the bother of the watchdog community planning groups. And the changes will make volunteering to be on one of these groups much, much less attractive, which was the goal.


{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

korla eaquinta September 20, 2022 at 11:17 am

Thanks Geoff for this comprehensive review of the changes to 600-24. CPC fought for many things and were ignored. Joe LaCava being the biggest road block. The free appeals was just too much. They want inclusivity and underrepresented groups and this completely goes against all that. The $500 annual stipend will not even allow for an appeal for ANY Planning Group!
The only reason the Peninsula Planning Group sees any projects now is if they need a Costal Development Permit. Otherwise, it is just “encouraged” that projects get PG review. So sad as we have such a great group of dedicated, committed volunteers. It won’t be long before we don’t have any. :{


kh September 20, 2022 at 4:39 pm

The city is now telling applicants that they don’t have to present to a CPG on any permit, coastal or otherwise. The boiler plate language varies by reviewer, but a DSD director confirmed it, and I found nothing in the existing municipal code or council policy requiring it either.

Obviously this is at odds with all the community workshop training that shows CPG review as an invaluable step in the development process.


Paul Webb September 20, 2022 at 11:47 am

The thing that I keep coming back to in all this is the notion that the planning groups are somehow stifling the development community and blocking much needed housing development that will bring down the cost of housing in San Diego.

I will ignore for the moment the often asserted belief that more housing will result in lower prices and just focus on how much housing planning groups have blocked. I have served two full three-year terms and am in my current term that ends in March. In that time, I can recall only one project that was denied by the planning commission on an appeal by the Peninsula Community Planning Board. My personal belief was that this denial was based less on the merits of the project than on the fact that the developer was caught in an obvious lie in their statements before the planning commission. That denial did not result in a blocked project – the structure was already built and part of the housing inventory. The requested permit was for a tentative map waiver only, to allow the units to be sold as condominiums, so in effect the denial allow a contribution to the city’s rental housing inventory!

How this is a major impediment to the development of housing or other projects just baffles me. I don’t know how many successful appeals other planning groups have been granted, but I suspect the number is very, very small and does not represent any major or significant roadblock to development.

I personally don’t mind increasing our representation of renters, lower income people and minorities, I just don’t know how to do it. We place ads in the Peninsula Beacon and try to get as much involvement involvement as we can. The last had five open seats and five candidates, despite press releases, etc., announcing the election. The previous election had a much larger slate of candidates. What do we do if we assign one or more seats to a renter, but no renters stand for election? Leave the seat vacant? Do we ask for documentation of income to insure that lower income candidates can receive some preferential treatment? Again, I’m baffled as to how to implement these supposed reforms.

I also don’t care if the city wants my personal information. If you run for any public office, even one with as little power or influence as the planning board, you are opening yourself up to scrutiny that you might not otherwise have. I can live with that. But some of the other reforms are just puzzling in how they will result in the better process the city seems to want. Of course this assumes that the city wants a better process rather than just emasculating the boards as seems to be the intent.


kh September 20, 2022 at 4:32 pm

I went back 3 years on the process 3-5 decisions where the documents are posted online, and could not find a single instance where the decision maker denied or even put conditions on a project as a result of a CPG recommendation. They followed the city staff recommendation every single time.

The only exception was for marijuana facilities, where licenses were no longer available at the time of the decision.

And about 10% of the time, city staff didn’t even reference or attach the CPG recommendation, or represent it accurately in their report. Who’s stifling community representation? The city is.


Frank Gormlie September 21, 2022 at 10:40 am

This was so good, Paul, I had to repost it.


Geoff Page September 20, 2022 at 12:43 pm

Great comments by two sitting, experienced planning board members, Korla and Paul.


kh September 20, 2022 at 4:25 pm

I’m guessing those appeals came from La Jolla. And I don’t blame them. The city has been trampling over their PDO for years rubber stamping “discretionary” projects without any apparent discretion. They have some experienced members that know their community plan well and they scrutinize projects accordingly.

The barriers to more robust community planning participation, are lack of support/respect from the city, and lack of time on the part of volunteers.

This recent reform will ensure even less city support, and require even more time commitment from volunteers. It will worsen the exact problem it purports to address. As for the muni code changes, there isn’t any nuance to the amended sections. They are simply erasing every reference to CPGs within the code. I don’t recall the city attorney taking issue with the code referencing independent CPGs. Independent entities are represented all over the code.

I also didn’t see any concern about representation of the demographic with families and children to care for. These are people with less free time than anyone, and who not-surprisingly benefit the least from bike lanes and bonus ADUs. And where is the study on whether under-represented persons were disproportionately denied seats on a CPG? All I’ve seen to date is hyperbole, character assassination and subtle accusations of racism directed at community volunteers.


Geoff Page September 20, 2022 at 7:37 pm

Well said from another long time, experienced planning board member. What the comments expose is the fallacy that the planning boards are holding up getting permits. The planning boards functioned as another set of eyes, eyes belonging to experienced people that often caught mistakes or managed to broker changes to projects to accommodate serious concerns of neighbors.

Now, all that will be left, it if is even possible to attain it, will be the wonderfully diverse boards everyone is touting that the city and developers will not have to listen to.


Paul Webb September 20, 2022 at 5:08 pm

One additional thought. Talking to architects and builders, I haven’t heard as much displeasure with planning groups as I have heard about problems with city staff. It is apparently very difficult to communicate with staff, schedule meetings, get meaningful input regarding project plans, etc. The costs of permits has gone way, way up and processing times are very long. There is much greater delay in the city’s DSD than is caused by the planning groups.


Mat Wahlstrom September 20, 2022 at 6:40 pm

So much to comment on in this excellent piece by Geoff, and so little time.

But I want to say, Paul, is that you are exactly right. In my short tenure as chair of Uptown Planners, the number of times applicants have said that I have provided them the assessment letters and cycle issues and other documents that they have been unable to get from the city is appalling.

CPGs aren’t just advocates for community input, but for a level playing field for *all* developers — not just those politically connected. That I think is another ugly subtext for this: going forward, anyone without their own connections who needs a project approved will now have no choice but to pay Circulate San Diego,


kh September 21, 2022 at 9:16 am

With the old system I could actually look up their cycle comments myself, if I had the phone number associated with the application. And without it I could still see were it was in process (although some planners do not seem to update the system reliably.)

The new accela system is opaque and cumbersome and I struggle to find the info I need on there, even on my own projects.

Do either of you have any different experience with that?


Mat Wahlstrom September 20, 2022 at 9:40 pm

One slight but important correction. This states, “The changes prohibit any attendance requirements in order to vote or run for a seat.”

As I pointed out in my public comment, to the best of my knowledge, there have *never* been attendance requirements to *vote*: only to run. This was the fattest red herring in their net of lies.


kh September 21, 2022 at 9:22 am

How the hell does the city expect them to function as a voting member if attending 1 meeting over an entire year is such a hardship? And without even seeing the CPG in action? They certainly aren’t going to learn much about how a CPG works from the city or circulate sd.


Geoff Page September 21, 2022 at 11:03 am

That has been a big sore point with me too, I believe the requirement should be two meetings to demonstrate actual interest and to see how the groups conduct meetings. But, not even one meeting? Ridiculous. If you can’t be bothered to attend one meeting in a year, what will happen if that person gets a seat?


Mat Wahlstrom September 21, 2022 at 11:54 am

Having people get elected then drop out when they realize they’re over their head is a deliberate part of Circulate’s endgame — because they want city councilmembers to “appoint new board members when a CPG vacancy occurs in their council district,”


Geoff Page September 21, 2022 at 12:13 pm

And, I have seen this time and time again on the Peninsula Community Planning Board, never attending a meeting first, getting elected as part of a slate, then resigning before a year is out when they see what the commitment really is. Now, this strategy you just outlined sounds like a whole new wrinkle.


Chris September 21, 2022 at 2:49 pm

“When CPGs vote to oppose new bicycle lanes to preserve on-street parking, they place the convenience of car storage above the value of human lives.”
As someone who bike commutes to work and rides a lot and uses available bike lanes, I’m not exactly in disagreement with this sentence.


kh September 21, 2022 at 4:32 pm

CPGs should consider all interests of the community when recommending how to best utilize the fixed resource that is the public right-of-way in any particular situation. It isn’t black and white, and voting members are not supposed to be activists for bikes, or cars.

Of course the city will put bike lanes in regardless, the CPGs are lucky if they even get told about it in passing.


Geoff Page September 21, 2022 at 5:42 pm

Chris, the way Circulate phrases things is intentional and misleading. The CPGs concern themselves with the whole community so what is phrased as preserving parking and car storage is not correct. The CPGs listen to the community residents and businesses that will be impacted. It is much more complex than just preserving parking and storing cars. This kind of propaganda is what breeds more and more opposition because of the dishonesty.


Geoff Page September 21, 2022 at 11:01 am

Mat, that has been my experience as well but I think there may be some groups that actually have required that to even vote in an election. If the city reviewed the by-laws of every group, as they are supposed to do, that requirement never should have been allowed.


Mat Wahlstrom September 21, 2022 at 11:56 am

If true, I absolutely agree. Yet no one has ever been able to point me to any CPG where that is the case.


Geoff Page September 21, 2022 at 12:31 pm

The worst planning group I ever witnessed was Mission Valley and I thought I heard this there. But, they do not have a website and I can’t find their by-laws anywhere.


kh September 21, 2022 at 4:38 pm

The city clearly has the bylaws, they approve them. They should post them online with the agendas. As well as all the city commissions, which is a mishmash depending on the particular board.

Maintaining a private website is time consuming and costs money. I wouldn’t fault any CPG that chooses not to. They can minimally function through the city website if they post 5 days in advance. Not sure if the city will post minutes though, and they definitely won’t post meeting documents which is required by the Brown Act.

But alas now all 42 CPGs have to go redraft their bylaws from scratch to follow some vague guidelines that need more explaining. Good thing we have lots of time on our hands, as we are all just old retired busybody nimby white property owners without day jobs.


FrankF September 21, 2022 at 8:14 am

Elections have consequences. When you vote with your heart instead of your head you wind up with a supermajority of one political party which usually leads to dictatorial conduct.

It’s our fault, don’t you see?

Our next opportunity is this November. Pay attention to your voter’s pamphlet. Don’t pick a candidate because they tug at your heartstrings.


Keith September 22, 2022 at 11:37 am

@circulateSD is a terrorist organization to the people of San Diego


Mat Wahlstrom September 22, 2022 at 12:29 pm

Well, it’s definitely a cult.


Chris September 23, 2022 at 6:42 am

That’s a bit of overkill. They’re an organization like any other that have an agenda and want things to be or become a certain way. And like any other organization with an agenda, not everyone likes that agenda. But to say they are terrorist or even a cult is pretty Shakespearian dramatic. I remember being called an eco terrorist because I was active with our local Surfrider Foundation chapter lol.


Frank Gormlie September 23, 2022 at 10:42 am

This is a significant critique of the new rules for CPGs and cannot be understated. Every fan of community planning groups needs to understand what LaCava & Co did to a 5-decade tradition of local planning by volunteer citizens. It’s actually very depressing to someone who was there at the beginning of the development of CPGs. Maybe I should write something about it ….


Mat Wahlstrom September 24, 2022 at 8:24 am

Agreed, Frank. And what’s most depressing is that no other media outlet has done any reporting on it that isn’t superficial. The city council was allowed to successfully bury it once everyone turned their attention away from the Midway Rising vote. The disempowering of this hard-fought means of democratic participation in civic decision-making should rightly alarm everyone, and certainly deserves more than a mere notice in passing.


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