Coming on the heels of the electoral defeat of the community plan for Barrio Logan in the June 3rd Primary, there’s now yet another community whose plan in trouble, and this time it’s Ocean Beach.
After a 12 year process of updating its community plan, Ocean Beach finally had a Draft Update that was supported and endorsed by every community group in the village. The OB Town Council was on board as were the merchants’ association. Plus other groups as well, like the Friends of the OB Library.
But on its way for the anticipated final approval by the City Council, the OB Community Plan ran into a roadblock: the San Diego Planning Commission.
At their May 29th hearing on the Plan, the Planning Commission – having listened to City staff endorse it, and after nearly every Commissioner praised OB’s “unique character”, turned around and recommended gutting the very tool the community and its Planning Board has used for nearly 4 decades to create that “unique character” by its limits on bulky over-development. The design tool, the FAR, limits how many square feet a developer can construct on a lot.
The Commission then unanimously voted for the Plan – but with their recommendations – to go before the full City Council, which hears the Plan on June 30th. (The Planning Commission’s second recommendation had to do with view corridors and does not concern us here.)
By throwing their significant weight behind a blatant effort to de-fang OB’s Plan, the Planning Commission has disrupted a process and a plan that has united the community of Ocean Beach – indeed a rare occasion.
The Commission’s stance has shocked and angered OB planners who have been involved in the Update process – at least one of them has been involved the whole 12 years. The manner in which the Planning Commission coddled one beach property owner while appearing to disrespect the OB community leaders who had testified reflected the majority perspective of the Commission; property matters.
In response to the Planning Commission, the planners from OB and their supporters have geared up a campaign to galvanize the citizens of the coastal town with a petition drive in support of the Plan and to mobilize people to the Council hearing.
The Update Process
Initiated and led by the City’s planning department a dozen years ago, the plan update process included a sub-committee formed and headed up by veteran home-grown OB planners, which ever since, has met with city staff and planners to bring the OB plan more in line with San Diego’s General Plan. Which it did, after years of drafts, committee meetings, of community-wide meetings, of town hall meetings, of workshops, of more presentations and meetings. Twelve years.
The Update process for the OB community plan culminated recently in a series of workshops, presentations and a lot of discussion just this past summer and fall of 2013. The OB Planning Board gave it their final stamp of approval on December 11th, 2013. The list of endorsing OB organizations was stunning.
The Plan was vetted by the City Attorney’s Office, and had been before the City Council Committee on Smart Growth and Land Use and approved on April 30, and the Plan had gone before Historical Resources Board with no problems.
But it was before the Planning Commission where the smiles on the faces of the OB planners and their supporters all but vanished. In essence, the Planning Commission – made up of 7 political appointees – recommended the deletion of key language in the Plan having to do with the so-called FAR, or “floor-area-ratio”. Yet this very language inserted in the Plan was insisted upon by the City Attorney’s Office.
OB planners had hoped for more of a sympathetic Commission, whose members are appointed to set terms by the mayor. Filner had appointed Anthony Wagner and Theresa Quiroz to the board, and both seemed friendly to OB. Faulconer has had time to also appoint two: James Whalen and Susan Peerson, both whom live in or near Ocean Beach. Whalen sounded sympathetic – unlike Peerson – and it was his original motion to approve the Plan – but he accepted as “friendly amendments” the recommendations pushed by the other older members with the new language.
And there you have this boondoggle. On one level, it’s OB and the City Attorney’s Office versus the Planning Commission. On another level, it’s San Diego’s establishment striking out against a perceived injustice to property owners and property rights in the language of OB’s Plan, language that defines OB’s low FAR.
This is why OB planners and their supporters are now responding to the Planning Commission recommendation by gearing up a community grass-roots campaign with the Petition and showdown at the City Council meeting. Close to 2,000 signatures have been collected by the end of this last week. Petitioners have been out at the weekly popular OB Farmers Market as well as local events, such as last Thursday’s OB Historical Society event.
So, just what does the Planning Commission want? Just what exactly is their recommendation?
The Commission wants to alter the current language which states in reference to Policies 4.2.1 – 4.2.9 of the Plan:
“4.2.9 Maintain the community’s small-scale character and avoid exceptions to established floor area ratios to the greatest extent possible under the law.”
An asterisk on the last word “law” led to this footnote: “Existing regulations specify FAR’s of 0.7 ….for the RM-2-4 … zone….”
It wants to delete language that indeed added teeth to the Plan. The Planning Commission’s change – with footnote removed:
“4.2.9 Maintain the community’s small-scale character and evaluate exceptions on a case by case basis to achieve the goals of the residential guidelines”
With the Commission’s language deletes references to OB’s FAR, an FAR of 0.70, OB planners fear that the low limit will be cut out altogether. In fact, at least a couple of the Commissioners voiced opinions during the hearing that the FAR should be eliminated.
But wait. Point-seven-zero, what? F-A-R? What?
Some Background to OB’s Situation
Back in the early-1970s, it had become clear that unbridled development was destroying the quality of life for those who lived at the beach and the coast. A crisis had been reached and the citizens of Southern California responded with the creation of the California Coastal Commission. People of San Diego also responded with a grass-roots initiative the set 30-foot height limits at the coast.
OB’s unique response was to establish the OB Planning Board in 1976 – which has been operating with volunteers ever since, for 38 years. OBceans, tenants, residents, property owners and businesspeople also wrote up a revamped, very green, community plan, originally called the OB Precise Plan. The Planning Board of OB became the very first democratically-elected planning committee both in the history of San Diego as well as the history of California.
The Planning Board’s job is to review development and new construction within the OB Community Planning Area, and ensure that any new projects fit within the blueprint of the OB Community Plan. And for nearly 4 decades, a community that many throughout San Diego appreciate for its unusual and bohemian character has survived and thrived under the auspices of the OB plan. Board members are democratically elected on a district wide basis, and as there are 7 planning districts within OB, the Board has 14 members. Officers, including the Chair, are elected annually.
The Wave of Gentrification
One of the major issues within planning in OB over the last several years has been the threat of gentrification, particularly in northwest OB and particularly along one block adjacent to the beach. There on that block, a few property owners of old duplexes have torn them down and constructed much larger, 3 storied one-family residences that exceed the “sacred” FAR of .7 for that neighborhood.
And they were able to achieve this by having variances granted to them by City staff – variances that were opposed by the OB Planning Board – which allowed the owners to then build larger buildings than they would have been able if they had adhered to the OB Precise Plan – the former name of the community plan.
Hence the issue. The Planning Board even contested decisions of the Planning Commission when some of the owners on that block appealed the Board’s decisions. Many on the Board and within the community felt these variances were improper and improperly granted. The municipal code spells out how variances are achieved – and they are supposed to be very unique and exceptional.
But these property owners along the same block were all getting the same variances and – all three of them so far – were all allowed to construct their large homes that were obviously out of scale with the immediate neighborhood, plus together the buildings presented a wall of concrete and stucco to the community instead of ocean views.
So, during the last months of the re-write process, language was inserted that spoke of this controversy over the variances. And here is the pertinent part of the original text:
“There are no special circumstances or conditions applying to properties in the multi-family designated areas of Ocean Beach that do not apply generally to to other properties in the RM-2-4 zone.”
While the .7 FAR is unique to Ocean Beach, strict application of the regulations would not deprive a property owner of reasonable use of the land, and granting of variances to increase allowable FAR in the RM-2-4 zone would adversely affect the Ocean Beach Community Plan.”
What this attempted to do was to explain that even under the unique FAR of .7 in the zone in question – near the coast -, “strict application of the regulations” meaning the Community Plan – a home owner could still build a worthy and liveable house within a “reasonable use of the land”. Then it adds that the granting of variances to get around the zone requirements “would adversely affect” the OB Plan.
But the property owners along that block of gentrification in northwest OB howled. They must have as the City told the OB planners that even this language had to be changed. The city did this through thee City Attorney’s Office, which proposed – no, insisted – on even different language where the Policies are defined. So the sub-committee and the OB Planning Board leadership agreed to new water-downed language that deleted any negative reference to “variances”.
The new update stated:
“… In response to the community’s concerns about neighborhood character and overall desire to maintain Ocean Beach’s established character, additional policies were include in the Urban Design Element – Residential Neighborhood Recommendations. (See Policies 4.2.1-4.2.9) These policies are intended to achieve transitions in scale between existing structures and new infill development.”
What this did, was remove any perceived negative references to “variances”. The point here, is that even before the Planning Commission gutted key language, OB planners had already agreed to watered down language. Now, OB is expected to compromise even more.
But the community planning leaders object to any more compromises. And the hundreds of OBceans signing the petition agree.
What Does OB Want?
OB wants its community plan the way it is written.
In essence, OB does not want to be another Mission Beach or to look like its Boardwalk. There, wall to wall, end to end, 3 story mansions dominate the oceanfront. But they’re all vacation rentals for $2000 – 4,000 a week, or time-shares, or empty buildings that no one can afford.
OB planners have been upset at how over the last several years, the City’s granting of variances has circumvented not only the OB Plan but also the City Code. OBcean planning veterans believe that if the City wishes to change OB’s zoning, then it needs to have a full-blown public hearing on the issue, instead of going around the Plan. Current City planners agree.
The battle is in its last week. OB organizers will continue to collect signatures, looking at the famous OB Street Fair the weekend of June 28th for their final big push. Plus a press conference is planned later in the week. This all in the hopes of showing the City Council that the community is united behind its plan.
What Is the FAR?
One of the major tools the Planning Board has used to limit bulky over-development here in the Land of OB has been the FAR – the Floor-Area-Ratio. In the coastal sections of OB, the FAR is 0.70. In contrast Mission Beach has a much higher FAR which allows developers to construct mammoth buildings that crowd out the beach.
Here’s what the OB Rag published a while ago as a “community planning 101” lesson:
In terms of density, most of OB is roughly 8 to 10 units per acre. One way density is controlled is through a calculation determined by the size of the lot and the size of the building being planned. It’s called the FAR – the Floor Area Ratio. This is a ratio between the size of the building over the size of the lot.
So, think this through. If you have an FAR of 1.0 – that means you could build out to every inch of your lot, right (not counting setback requirements yet)? If allowed, you could do this several ways. You could build out to the property line with one story. Or you could build two stories, each with 50% of the lot, or 3 stories, each with one-third, and so on.
Of course, there are all kinds of set-back requirements, side yards, parking issues – which prevent you from building out to your property line, but we aren’t dealing with them right now.
Now, if you have an FAR that is less than 1.0, then you have restrictions of how far out or how high you could build.
And if you have an FAR that is higher than 1.0, you could build more than your lot size – you can build up. (These are maximums we’re dealing with.)
The FAR in Ocean Beach is 0.7. So is a lot of Point Loma. In comparison, much of the rest of San Diego is 1.2. So, in general, we find that building in Ocean Beach – at the coast – is more restrictive than in the rest of the city. Makes sense.
So, take your typical OB lot, a residential plot. It’s got a 25 foot length across the front and is 100 feet deep. Okay, so the square footage for the lot is 2500 square feet. If the FAR for that lot is .7, then the maximum ratio of the building being planned to the land is .7, or 70%. And seventy percent of the 2500 sq. ft. lot is 1,750 square feet. That is the total size of the building that can be built on that type and size of lot in OB.
So, since this is your typical OB lot – in a certain and dramatic way it’s also the standard lot. Keep this in mind for later.
Now, we already said that the area zoned RM2-4 is your area west of Sunset Cliffs Blvd – with Sunset Cliffs being an obvious north-south dividing line in the community.
Now, here’s an anomaly: according to the City’s development code, a minimum lot in the RM2-4 zone is 6,000 square feet. Well, think about it – this is OB. There are no single lots in OB of that size, no single lots here in OB with 6,000 sq. ft. Well, you might say, okay, Ocean Beach is the exception in that zone.
Yet according to research done by a Planning Board member, outside OB, there’s only about a dozen parcels in the entire city that are zoned RM2-4. Or in other words, 99% of the parcels that are zoned RM2-4 are in OB. Except for some exceptions. This means, ‘no, OB is not the exception in this zone, it’s the rule, it’s the standard.’ The Code is wrong.