The End of San Diego’s Community Planning Boards: How We Got Here

by on March 24, 2023 · 13 comments

in History, Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Frank Gormlie

After decades of existance, the community planning boards of San Diego were delivered a devastating shock last September 13, 2022, when the City Council passed a breath-taking tsunami of so-called “reforms” that laid out a blueprint for the demolition of the city’s current 42 citizen volunteer planning panels.

In my post from yesterday, I outlined the 3 main methods the city will use to dismantle San Diego’s community planning boards – or groups as some call them (CPGs):

  1. Force current planning committees  / boards to “re-apply” and compete with other groups to be officially recognized by the city as a community’s CPG;
  2. Force volunteer planning group members and any candidates to endure a rigorous background check; CPGs would be subject to profiling, by collecting “periodic demographic data on voting members.”
  3. Not require developers to appear in front of planning committees which cuts planning boards entirely out of the formal review process, and destroys their raison d’etre — their reason for being in the first place.

None of this is hyperbole. Here is the language at the city’s Planning Department website page under “Community Planning Group Reform“:

On September 13, 2022, the City Council approved changes to Council Policy 600-24 which defines the roles, responsibilities, and standard operating procedures of CPGs. These changes focused on improving transparency, records retention, broadening community representation and reflecting CPGs’ legal status as independent organizations, consistent with the City Charter.

In early 2023, the Planning Department will provide additional information and resources to assist existing and potential new groups with the application process for City Council recognition.

Starting in 2024, the Department will the present the applications to the Land Use & Housing Committee and City Council. As part of the approval process, the Department will evaluate the applications received for each community planning area for City Council consideration. Existing Community Planning Groups should continue to rely on their bylaws up until the City Council recognizes them or a new group for a community plan area under the revised Council Policy 600-24. [My emphasis.]

Note the language that the changes are for “improving transparency, records retention, broadening community representation and reflecting CPGs’ legal status as independent organizations, consistent with the City Charter.”

CPGs have never been “independent,” they have in general been more transparent than our own city council, and sure, “broadening community representation” is a wonderful and worthy goal, but it’s not the CPGs that have generally held back on this. Most have trouble getting enough volunteers from the community to fill their boards.

Compare the above language with this, also from the Planning Dept page:

Overview of Community Planning Groups

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.

Phrases such as “formal mechanisms for community input,” and that their “recommendations” “are integral components of the planning process, and are highly regarded by the City Council and by staff,” does not sound like CPGs are independent. The “reforms” and the “overview” conflict and are as different as night and day.

It’s sufficient to understand the consequences of the council’s action back last September and that it will lead to the end of community planning boards as we know them.

The Rag has been waving red flags about this for weeks and months, particularly writers Geoff Page and Mat Wahstrom, whom I paraphrase below.

How Did We Get Here

As readers of the OB Rag may know, Ocean Beach established the very first community planning group that was democratically elected back in 1976, nearly fifty years ago. This culminated five years of research, organizing, and lobbying by OB residents — all in response to commercial and business interests that had dominated the urban planning of the community. People rightly saw that developers were running amok over public input and the neighborhood was being subjected to unbridled over-development. Now, there are 42 community planning groups throughout the city.

Needless to say, the developers have never liked community planning groups and have schemed for ways to undermine if not eliminate them completely ever since.

The most current assault on the neighborhood planning panels began in 2017 and 2018, when  Republican Councilmember Scott Sherman cajoled both the city auditor and the county grand jury to investigate the claim that “CPGs tend to delay hearing certain items as a method of restricting growth in their communities.”

Neither the city auditor nor the county Grand Jury  substantiated this claim, but both blamed delays in the development review process on the city itself for not providing CPGs needed staff, education and resources.

In apparent anticipation that the city auditor and grand jury would substantiate the allegation, Circulate San Diego in February 2018 launched an initiative to gut CPGs from within by changing their bylaws shell. Titled “Democracy in Planning,” it called for the distinctly un-democratic appointment of CPG board members by councilmembers and for councilmembers to fill board vacancies.

Meanwhile, city leaders refused to implement the recommended changes, and instead called for a raft of restrictions that were approved by the city council in February 2020. With the city attorney in lockstep the council implemented nearly all of Circulate San Diego’s recommendations. None of these changes were suggested by the city auditor or grand jury.

In a November 2019 Rag report on the OB Planning Board meeting, Geoff Page warned of the coming changes. He wrote on the “Taskforce on Community Planning Group Reform Draft Findings & Recommendations,” which contained a list of 31 reforms believed necessary to enact for planning boards. The document states:

“The Taskforce on Community Planning Group Reform convened to review existing recommendations that were proposed in the City Audit, the Grand Jury report, and the Democracy in Planning report produced by Circulate San Diego.”

He stated, “A group called Circulate San Diego created something called the Democracy in Planning Group, which made 11 of the 31 recommendations.” (Over the last couple of years, the Rag has been highly critical of Circulate SD for favoring developers over residential grassroots power.) Page continued:

The Task Force was stacked.  There are eleven members.  Of the eleven, two represented small businesses, one was a current or past member of the Planning Commission, one was a current or past employee of the Department Services Department or Planning Department, one was a member of the Building Industry Association, and one is an urban infill developer. More than half of the group was involved in the development world. There was also a person from a “Mass Transit/Mobility advocacy organization,” which was Circulate San Diego.

Who represented the planning boards?  There were three.  … A person with one year of planning board experience, a planning board member that is a land use attorney, and one with experience on one of the planning boards that represents an area to the south of National City and Chula Vista.

The reforms were begun under Mayor Kevin Faulconer and accelerated by Todd Gloria, which demonstrates, as Mat Wahlstrom has written, “CPG ‘reform’ has been a wholly bipartisan effort to disenfranchise community input and remove any brakes on runaway development.”

At the city council level, it’s been District 1 Councilmember Joe LaCava, himself a former community planner, who has led the charge for the “reforms.” As Wahlstrom noted, LaCava went so far as to create a production on YouTube  with him “capering on behalf of his developer donors, to propose a complete undoing of the city council policies governing community planning groups (CPGs). But once again, the asinine is the point: it cloaks the atrocious under cover of whimsy.”

On February 28 of this year, the Community Planners Committee, composed of the chairs of the 42 CPGs and headed by OB Planning Board chair, Andrea Schlegeter, heard more details about what the latest “reforms” approved by the City Council last September will entail. After roundly criticizing the changes for introducing burdensome conditions, the chairs’ greatest concerns surrounded the need for CPGs to apply for recognition from scratch.

Starting next year, any group can compete for this recognition, without having held a public election, planning experience or even having residence or ownership qualification.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Joni Halpern March 24, 2023 at 8:47 pm

I agree it’s the death knell of community planning. The old CPGs were not perfect, but you could approach the people who were on them, fill the room when things were going awry, and make the community’s voice heard. How are individual community members going to make their voices heard without being part of the groups vying for status as CPGs? The answer is, the community won’t know how to be heard, even if the group that calls itself representative has its own voice. And that is precisely the outcome our city government wants. Many years ago, a community planning group was where aspiring local politicians cut their teeth, first proving to the community that they were willing to put in the time to listen to the small and large concerns of individuals who showed up at meetings. The CPG, imperfect as it was, at least could provide a focal point at which the community could aim its voice in an effort to mitigate the notorious dominance of local planning politics by developers and real estate interests. The new, so-called CPG “reforms” are not an improvement in community representation or participation. They are a hand grenade thrown down the throat of community voices.


Gary Wonacott March 24, 2023 at 10:47 pm

The Mission Beach Precise Planning Board was instrumental in establishing the 30 height limit, as well as identifying other historical issues in the unique environment that is Mission Beach. But then about 15 years ago, the current Chairperson came to power, recruited other board members who had little say on the planning board except to serve the Chair. The Chair has continued to manipulate the required annual voting over and over again. In addition, her management style is extremely controlling, eliminating the possibility for committees that could have pushed for a wide variety of improvements in the community, including any effort to update the Mission Beach Precise Plan. Her quid pro quo approach enabled the Short Term Rental industry to establish a foothold ultimately leading to the carve out of MB. And to top it off, she has used her same controlling approach to ensure that airport noise would be concentrated in SMB. There have been attempts to remove her, but then next thing you might hear would be the Chair claiming that you threatened her. The PDO is important to MB, but at what new costs in the future?


FrankF March 25, 2023 at 8:20 am

The solution to community problems is always at the ballot box. Don’t vote party, vote your pocketbook and vote your local neighborhood issues. Attend candidate forums, raise hell. Attend city council meetings, raise hell.

Since covid shut down in-person meetings politicians have taken advantage of us to push their self-serving agendas. The Sport Arena redevelopment is a perfect example of this.

Resist! Fight back!


retired botanist March 25, 2023 at 5:31 pm

Whoa. And great comments, Frank, Joni, and Gary, thx. This is a depressing development. Sure, next time vote out Gloria, et al, but voting can’t solve everything, especially changes in representation, and especially the critical platform citizens need, always and especially between elections, for the issues communities care about. This is a tectonic shift in loss of community voice. My experience and foray into municipal processes is actually quite limited to the 25 years I spent in San Diego. I am curious, but paranoid to ask, is this what is is happening in other local municipalities? I presume all cities in America have/had similar, community planning boards and processes for citizen input? Or is that naive on my part? Is this theft (reformatting) happening everywhere in the country?


Mary Katherine Reeber March 25, 2023 at 9:50 pm

If developers aren’t required to present projects before community planning boards how can the community have any input on developments? And basically why on earth should anyone expect volunteers for committees that have no real function or standing? What would the community planning committees be able to do?


Paul Webb March 27, 2023 at 9:23 am

Exactly, Mary Katherine. For this reason, I chose not to run for a new term in this month’s elections for the peninsula planning board. It just seems pointless now. The city does not want input, they don’t want to consider anyone else’s ideas and they want no obstacles to new development. They know best, not the citizenry. Period. Full stop.


Leslie Bruce March 26, 2023 at 11:50 am

City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilman Stephen Whitburn will be at today’s in-person meeting of the Point Loma Ocean Beach Democrats. Be there to ask them about their support of this CPG approach. Sunday 3/26/23 at 4pm sharp at the Point Loma Assembly on Talbot at Rosecrans. Help hold these people accountable.


Leslie Bruce March 27, 2023 at 10:47 am

At yesterday’s PL-OB Dems meeting, when I asked Brian Elliott, City Councilmember Joe LaCava’s policy advisor about the CPG legislation that his boss authored, he said that it was to protect CPGs from lawsuits, and reinforces their right to exist. (!) I was flabbergasted by this response. Maybe Frank should interview Joe LaCava on the record?


Jim Hare March 28, 2023 at 11:47 am

I would love to pile on here by saying that the only time the City Attorney was called in to defend a planning group under Policy 600-24 was when the Peninsula Community Planning Board and its individual members were sued by a now former member. So, if litigation and indemnification was the issue, we perhaps have one of our own to blame…
That snark aside, the true sadness behind the City’s new approach is that they are abandoning a low-cost but valuable decades-long investment in a citizen-maintained, regularly scheduled, and fully publicized monthly system of forums-by-the-willing in each of its communities. These forums could well have been used by staff over the course of years, to educate regarding housing needs, equitable infrastructure programing, transportation alternatives and neighborhood design, and to thereby bring issue identification, data, reasoning and policy evolution in increments out to the retail level.
Further, even though CPG project review recommendations very seldom changed outcomes, they did incrementally inform the City of the issue centers identified by residents. Thoughtful interaction around those topics would have been valuable to all parties and could have occurred had not the City zero-staffed the CPGs.
Over the years, the City has gone from a two-way street of interaction, to a one-way street of CPG input, to the verge of having no throughfare at all. I agree and believe that many important neighborhood issues have been ignored due to the traditional makeup of planning groups. But sadly at this point anyone seeking to change that would be best served by joining an interest advocacy group rather than wasting their valuable energy on a planning board seat.


Paul Webb March 28, 2023 at 12:01 pm

Jim, I could not have said it better.


Geoff Page March 29, 2023 at 12:22 pm

Mr. Hare was too polite to identify Don Sevrens as the board member who sued the other board members. In an astonishing display of treacle, the PCPB actually did a tribute to this person at his last meeting, a person who did nothing but cause trouble during his entire tenure. There were grounds to remove him several times but the fortitude was not there, it took him terming out to get his ass off the board and out of the public eye.


Leslie Bruce March 28, 2023 at 3:40 pm

Me neither, Jim. Well said. The baby has been tossed out with the bath water and we are all the lesser for it.


FrankF March 29, 2023 at 12:54 pm

Once again, sage reasoning from Jim Hare. (Go Timbers!)

I never thought I’d be defending our mayor and his merry band of thieves but let’s put this “housing at any cost” push on Tony Adkins and Gavin Newsom. SB-9 gutted community planning authority. Cities are mandated by Sacramento to build, build, build and community planning groups are in the way of that mandate.

So the next time you meet and greet Tony Adkins, ask her WTF?

As I’ve said before, we have met the enemy and he is us. We allowed this to happen, now what are we going to do about it?????


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