Should La Jolla become its own city? S.D. business leaders and economists consider key issues

La Jolla's independence is being explored by a new group of community residents.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

With a new movement underway for La Jolla to become its own city rather than remain a neighborhood of San Diego, questions arise about whether that could create economic and housing opportunities or problems.

Members of the Association for the City of La Jolla — the group leading the effort to secede — say San Diego has ignored decaying infrastructure and shifted much of its funding away from La Jolla in favor of low-income areas. They say some streetlights in La Jolla Shores have been out for years with no fix in sight and major streets are riddled with potholes. And they argue that taking responsibility for expensive infrastructure improvements away from San Diego could help the larger city focus on other areas and provide a better La Jolla for tourists and the rest of the region.

According to the association’s plan, La Jolla would establish its own departments of development services, planning, parks and recreation and others, housing them in a city hall at a location to be determined in The Village.

The new city would not provide all of its own services at first. It would lease public safety services — police, fire, lifeguards and ambulance — from San Diego, as well as environmental services such as trash collection and animal control.

Cityhood could include some headaches for La Jolla. Though it might avoid San Diego’s recent efforts to upzone single-family areas, it likely would be on the hook for more low-income housing required by the state. As part of San Diego, much of the subsidized housing requirements are handled by building downtown, not in affluent La Jolla. Coastal cities have struggled to find places to put affordable housing.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has been publishing the La Jolla Light’s ongoing series of stories about a local group’s new proposal to make La Jolla a city independent of San Diego, and it asked its readers for their opinions.

April 17, 2023

More of an issue for San Diego: Previous studies have shown it gets more tax revenue from La Jolla than it spends there.

Once a consultant hired by the Association for the City of La Jolla completes a fiscal impact analysis, the next steps to cityhood would be:

  • A formal proposal submitted to the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, which provides guidelines and assistance to communities trying to incorporate
  • A petition supporting incorporation signed by at least 25 percent of La Jolla registered voters
  • LAFCO approval of the initiative
  • Public voting showing that both a majority of La Jollans and the rest of San Diego approve of La Jolla’s secession

The La Jolla Light included a poll with the online version of the final installment of its six-part series “Leaving San Diego?”

May 30, 2023

The San Diego Union-Tribune asked members of its Econometer panel of area business leaders and economists, “Should La Jolla become its own city?”

Here are their responses:

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

Yes: John Locke was right on target in 1689: The core requirement for legitimate government is consent of the governed. If residents feel that the city is not serving their needs or is imposing unfair burdens on their community, they should not be forced to stay. Nevertheless, I will be saddened if it comes to this. I would prefer to see a spirit of compromise by city leaders to make every effort to serve the entire community.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

No: There is virtually no chance the rest of the city of San Diego will vote approval for La Jolla to secede even if a majority of La Jolla residents approved the formation of an independent city. But I can understand the frustration La Jolla residents have in not receiving direct value from their local taxes. Equity in both directions — local and citywide — should be considered by the City Council when they spend tax money.

Norm Miller, University of San Diego

Yes: It seems that La Jolla is losing out to a policy of fiscal redistribution, so becoming an independent city would allow for more self-determination on local priorities. At the same time, it is likely to be more expensive to run independent police, fire and other services, so local tax increases are likely. Still, the benefit-to-cost ratio is net positive if it means better services and maintenance of La Jolla infrastructure.

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

Yes: If La Jolla is giving San Diego more than it receives and desires to incorporate, then they should explore that option. Like other coastal cities, including Del Mar, Encinitas and Carlsbad, La Jolla would be responsible for its own city government and infrastructure (including fire, water, law enforcement, community development and wastewater) among other city services. If the benefits outweigh the costs and they can get the support needed to self-govern, then it’s something they should pursue.

David Ely, San Diego State University

No: Final judgment will need to wait until a formal proposal becomes available. However, it seems unlikely that a majority of voters in the city of San Diego would vote to approve the secession of a wealthy neighborhood like La Jolla. Concern that the city of San Diego’s fiscal condition will deteriorate with the loss of tax revenue will raise opposition to a secession proposal.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

No: To prosper as a region, we need to share resources. If that means La Jolla subsidizes poorer parts of San Diego, so be it. Large existing disparities in housing, education and infrastructure would be even wider if wealthy neighborhoods secede to put their own wants first. That said, the threat of secession can be a useful tool to ensure La Jolla’s needs are not overlooked in the push for greater equity.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

Yes: Some may be surprised La Jolla is not already its own city, which has been contemplated for many decades. La Jolla should have self-determination and responsibility, including recognizing all considerations of governing oneself. ... Although including some of the region’s highest property values, relatively little retail sales tax revenue exists within the area, an important source for municipal government funding.

Lynn Reaser, economist

No: Although independence has a lot of appeal, its reality may be questionable. La Jolla would then have to compensate the city for lost revenues. It would have to fund everything from sanitation to police and fire. Meeting the state’s low-income requirements will be exceedingly difficult given the high price of housing and [California] Coastal Commission requirements.

Phil Blair, Manpower

No: But it certainly should be the residents’ option. Cities should regularly analyze their options of downsizing or, more importantly, merging to create cost savings in areas where size matters. Do we really need 18 cities in the county of San Diego?

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

No: I am sympathetic to complaints cited by secession promoters. But it will be a challenge to make a strong fiscal case for secession. I also see this as essentially an anti-housing movement. Certainly the politics, particularly a citywide vote to affirm, will be very challenging. Perhaps a better approach would be to create a special assessment or ... district to raise funds to address the capital improvement and operating deficiencies that they cite.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this article.