With input from our many contributors, editors put together a series of eight questions we felt were unique, not too open ended and not trite. We’re publishing one response from the candidates per day (Monday-Friday) so readers can see the verbatim responses side by side.
We emailed the questions to the addresses listed with the City Clerk’s office as contact points, knowing most of the minor candidates wouldn’t respond. Kevin Faulconer’s campaign is refusing to participate. We can only assume–and, believe me we’ve tried to get them involved– their non-response sends a message about their openness to the citizens in this city. You can decide what that message is. (
Editor’s note: According to his campaign staff, Nathan Fletcher did not receive our questions until after we began publishing this virtual forum. His responses have since been added.
The complete questionnaire can be found here.
Today’s topic is about what has gone wrong with the permit process and a bonus question about the city’s recently reconstituted Planning Department. SDFP editor Anna Daniels put together an introduction to the issue so readers can see our thinking behind asking the question.
In April of 2011, Mayor Jerry Sanders eliminated the City Planning and Community Investment Department. Citing fiscal constraints, he rolled that department’s duties into Development Services, a department primarily concerned with issuing permits. He also viewed this decision as a remedy to the Sunroad Enterprise Building controversy, when Sunroad construction violated the 160 foot federal height limit, but was in technical compliance with city zoning.
It clearly did not remedy the problem– in 2013 we were introduced to Sunroad, Part Deux– but it did give us a glimpse as to how a strong mayor attempted to control the city’s land use bureaucracy. While the San Diego County Building Industry Association favored Sander’s decision for its efficiency and cost savings to developers, City Councilmembers Gloria and Lightner viewed it as an attempt to meld two incompatible functions that would erode the independence of the planning functions. A number of community plans were thrown into limbo.
City planning is concerned with a myriad of land use functions that extend into the future. Those land use functions are shaped through citizen input via community planning groups and consolidated community plans and must conform to pertinent federal and state regulations. The planning functions are supported through tax revenues.
Development services are funded by builders fees. Developers and property owners pay these fees to get projects approved that either conform to land use policies (planning function) or through an approved variance process (also a planning function). It is not difficult to see how this is supposed to work in the abstract–growth is managed and controlled through zoning laws and municipals codes and developers are required to follow them, thus achieving a sustainable balance of public benefit and private/non-profit interests.
Ask the residents of Sherman Heights and North Park what happens in real time. In August of 2013 “Judge Timothy Taylor ruled that the City looked the other way while retailer Walmart converted a Sherman Heights warehouse, once a neighborhood farmer’s market, into a 42,000 square foot retail store…Taylor found that the mega-retailer played down the size and scope of their building proposal.” (Dorian Hargrove San Diego Reader)
At the same time that Judge Taylor’s decision was released, a group of North Park residents were filing a lawsuit against the Jack in the Box on Upas Street that they contend was outside the size and scope of the original building proposal for which a permit was issued. At that point, the old Jack in the Box had been completely demolished.
If this sounds like “deja vu all over again,” it is and there’s more. In April of 2013 the City Council voted to “waive its own policies governing private encroachment onto public property and give notorious real-estate developer Sunroad Enterprises two 9-foot easements within each side of a public park that the developer was required to create as part of a commercial-residential project in Kearny Mesa.” (CityBeat)
What wasn’t deja vu all over again was our second strong mayor, Bob Filner, who was present during the Jack in the Box controversy and the Sunroad easement decision. Once again we got a glimpse as to how a strong mayor attempted to control the city’s land use bureaucracy.
One of his signature accomplishments was a reconstituted Planning Department, with respected urban planner Bill Fulton heading it. Filner believed that neighborhood empowerment required comprehensive land use practices that were community driven.
He vetoed the City Council vote on the Sunroad Easement, then wound up in trouble when he accepted, on behalf of the city, a $100,00 donation from Sunroad developers for CicloDias and a Veterans Plaza in Ocean Beach. The assumption was that there were enough votes on the council to over-ride his veto, and that the city should receive some monetary offset for the loss of the public land in the Sunroad deal.
On Filner’s last day in office, he signed a Stop-Use order to discontinue the drive-thru at the North Park Jack in the Box. Upon becoming interim mayor later that same day, Todd Gloria immediately rescinded the Stop-Use order. Filner’s exit also complicates the future of the Planning Department. And there are a number of lawsuits, making the issues a costly hot mess.
3. Building Permit Enforcement Process/Planning Department
San Diego has a recent history of a flawed building permit enforcement process, such as the construction of the Jack in the Box in North Park, the Walmart in Sherman Heights, the demolition of cottages in La Jolla and the Sunroad encroachment.
What is your plan for addressing this flawed process? AND Do you support the recently re-constituted Planning Department as a stand-alone entity?
It is not a problem of “building permit enforcement,” but a problem of whether, when, how and what type of permit should or should not be issued in the first place.
It seems clear that Jack in the Box first chose the appropriate permitting process and the use they sought was non-conforming. That should have been the end of the story. However, they went back to Development Services, which does what it’s name implies – serves developers –– spoke with someone else, lied about the extent of the of the so-called “remodel” and counted on Development Services to back them up when they were caught, which is exactly what happened.
In it’s audit of the approval of Walmart in Sherman Heights, the State Auditor found numerous errors made by Development Services staff, including: failure to verify information supplied by applicants; inappropriate processing of changes to building permits; failure to properly notify the public about environmental determinations; and, late filing of required conflict-of-interest forms by decision- making city officials. The audit said Development Services generally followed requirements for reviewing permits but could have done more to protect historical resources.
Perhaps most egregious was the approval of two permits months after a lawsuit challenging the project was filed.
In each case, it is a matter of the Development Services Department going out of it’s way to assist developers in their efforts to skirt the rules and procedures in order to ensure the project is developed.
The re-established Planning Department will assist in resolving such issues before they start. However, some are arguing that there are insufficient funds to update Community Plans. The Community Plan is what sets forth the specific processes, policies and guidelines for how and where development occurs within in the planning area, including public hearings.
There are 52 Community Plans in the City of San Diego that are supposed to be updated every ten years. Very few Community Plans are up-to-date because the Development Services Department wasn’t concerned with long-term planning. While most residents don’t know about the community planning process, they see the affects of outdated community plans when issues such as those in North Park, Sherman Heights, La Jolla and Kearny Mesa arise, which are basic services residents count on the City to provide.
We’ve already seen that our communities cannot afford not to spend the money to update community plans, as well as to maintain the Planning Department as the primary entity that guides growth and development. At the same time, we need to relegate Development Services to processing purely administrative permits that have been signed of on by Planning, with the City Attorney interpreting zoning and other code consistency.
We must remain vigilant to protect the integrity of our permitting and review process, including the information provided to our decision-makers, and the engagement of the public. We simply cannot afford to sacrifice the legitimacy of our municipal authority in the interest of expediency.
I believe we must do better than simply giving lip service to community input, and as mayor I will prioritize substantive outreach to community members about proposed changes to their neighborhoods that allows them a meaningful opportunity to drive the process. It’s also critical that we invest in strong, inclusive updates to community plans across San Diego, and use them as meaningful guides rather than continuing past instances of overruling them for case-by-case expedience.
We have an opportunity to benefit from a world class mind in Bill Fulton, and it would be terrible to squander the chance to make San Diego a global leader in innovative city planning. It’s important not to lose the chance to do this work better in the blind pursuit of simply doing it faster. Keeping the Planning Department separate from Development Services sends an important message that developers are important partners in the future of our communities, but they will not dictate that future. It’s critical that we remain committed to holistic planning that is not simply driven by private profit but prioritizes overall quality of life for community members.
(a) Shorter process and much simplier. [sic] Has to be transparent and on-line!
(b) Yes support – fulton g[?] s[?]tion. Should move any redevelopment into this department. Do away with CivicSD.
Everyone should have to play by the same permitting rules, whether they’re a multibillion-‐ dollar corporation or a small family-‐owned business. If someone breaks the rules, they should be held accountable. If the rules are unclear, we need to clarify them. In my administration, I’ll ensure the rules are clear, and we’ll hold city staff and businesses accountable for following them. I support the re-‐establishment of a separate Planning Department in the city and would keep it as a stand-‐alone entity.
The Virtual Mayoral Forum will return on Monday, asking about alternative transportation issues in San Diego.