By Pat Sherman
Though La Jolla has its own mailing address, it is not, as some people who live here still believe, its own city.
It is, as one group of La Jollans is well aware, part of the city of San Diego — and that group has long been irked by what they view as San Diego officials’ shoddy stewardship of their “Jewel by the Sea.”
“Our sidewalks are appalling, our streets are appalling and our alleys are appalling — and it doesn’t have to be,” said Melinda Merryweather, a founding board member of Independent La Jolla, a group working to see La Jolla secede from San Diego and incorporate as its own city.
“Cities are just becoming too big,” Merryweather said. “I think if you have 22 children, somebody’s going to go to bed without dinner.”
Merryweather and other Independent La Jolla members look toward neighboring independently governed cities, like Solana Beach and Del Mar, as examples of what La Jolla could be. They say the city of San Diego is not properly maintaining La Jolla’s beach facilities and has a disregard for its historic properties.
“When I drive through Del Mar, which has only 4,000 residents, it’s immaculate — not a pothole, the trees are trimmed,” Merryweather said. “Here, we have mega-mansions next to cottages.
“If they can destroy an old house and put up a new one, they get a new tax base,” she said. “It’s just better for them.”
Independent La Jolla members hope to take their quest to voters in the next few years.
The group’s president, Cindy Greatrex, moved to La Jolla four years ago, not long after helping the beachside village of Sagaponack, New York incorporate as a city.
Though many have criticized La Jolla’s potential separation from San Diego as a tall order that San Diego officials will never allow, Greatrex said it is not as difficult a prospect as people might believe.
“I’m telling you, if you talk to people around town, more people than not want this,” she said. “In this country as a whole, there has never been one village that became a city and then went back, and said, ‘Man, we are over our heads; we want out.’ It’s very doable.”
Greatrex envisions the city forming its own government, with a mayor and city council, while contracting out the majority of its services — including police, fire protection, code compliance, lifeguard service, animal control, land use planning and road maintenance — to the city of San Diego. It’s a template that most communities that convert to cities have used.
Longtime La Jolla resident and former U.S. congressional representative Lynn Schenk, who also served as a chief of staff to Gov. Gray Davis, got onboard the secession movement after attending an Independent La Jolla meeting several years ago.
Like a couple going through a divorce, Schenk said that La Jolla would have to make multi-million dollar “alimony” payments to the city of San Diego over a seven-year period.
Schenk believes it’s reasonable for La Jollans to make up for San Diego’s sudden loss in tax revenue. However, the separation also would require more than 50 percent approval from the citizens of greater San Diego.
“Having to have the bigger city vote its approval is fundamentally unfair to the community that wants to break away and be masters of their own destiny,” Schenk said, noting that discussions are taking place in the state legislature that could potentially remove that requirement, as long as a village pays its “alimony.”
Schenk said she believes La Jolla has more resources to stand on its own than some other cities that have incorporated, including a “bigger tax base, larger population, and more diverse economic base.”
“Depending on how the lines are drawn we have major universities, hospitals, research institutions. … We’ve got quite a lot,” Schenk said.
In 2005, Independent La Jolla members spent about $45,000 to have an independent feasibility study conducted by a Sacramento firm, which they say shows that La Jolla has the money and resources to govern itself.
“This company had to go through every single thing you could think of about La Jolla — the topography, the demographics, the tax base, every tiny detail,” Greatrex said.
Before proceeding with a vote, Greatrex said the study must be updated to reflect current property and transient occupancy taxes (which are tacked onto hotel guests’ tabs), as well as a metes and bounds survey for the 92037 area code to reflect new development, erosion, land encroachments and other changes since the first survey was completed.
The group must also pay applicable fees to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a state-mandated agency that helps communities navigate the legal and bureaucratic process of incorporating as a city.
Total secession costs for La Jolla, which has roughly 44,000 residents, is close to $2 million Greatrex said, about half of which would be spent on a much-needed print and broadcast advertising blitz to persuade San Diego voters that secession is a sound idea.
“Studies have shown a significant correlation between (advertising) monies spent and the outcome of elections,” Greatrex said.
Schenk said timing is the key to the movement’s success.
“When a critical mass of La Jollans who live here year-round get disgusted enough with the potholes, with the traffic, with the dirt, with the unenforceable laws … and want to take their destiny in their own hands, it can happen and I think it will,” Schenk said.