Since 1966, the City of San Diego has relied on citizen volunteers forming committees in their communities to advise the City on local planning issues. There are currently 42 of them representing 52 different neighborhoods — the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) was one of the first.
“Community planning groups are the bell weather for Democracy, with a small d,” said Barrett Tetlow, chief of staff for District 7 City Council member Scott Sherman. “Community planning groups provide citizens with an opportunity for involvement in advising the City Council, the Planning Commission, and other decision-makers on development projects, land-use matters, community plan amendments, rezoning and public facilities.”
In spring 2018, two independent reports regarding Community Planning Groups were sent to the City Council and the Mayor’s office. They raised eyebrows at City Hall.
• The first came from Circulate San Diego, an advocacy group “dedicated to advancing mobility and making the region a better place to live, work and play,” according to its website. The study, titled “Democracy in Planning,” found: “When CPGs (Community Planning Groups) are closed off to new and diverse voices, there can be real consequences. Neighborhood planning groups that make it difficult for new residents to participate tend to oppose new housing construction, which artificially inflates rents.”
• Around the same time, the San Diego County Grand Jury received a citizen’s complaint alleging that local planning groups tend to delay hearing certain items as a method of restricting growth in their communities. As result of its investigation, the Grand Jury forwarded a list of five recommended changes to the Mayor’s office.
• With these in hand, the City Council asked its Audit Committee, chaired by Sherman, to direct the Office of City Auditor to conduct its own audit of CPGs. Its work was completed in December 2018 with the following finding: “Lack of transparency and oversight of the Community Planning Groups’ development review process has led to some confusion over their role and has made it difficult to analyze their performance and influence.”
• In April, Sherman, who sits on both the Audit and Land-Use & Housing committees, formed an 11-member ad hoc task force to develop a list of proposed changes to Council Policy 600-24, which governs CPGs and was last updated in 2014. The task force was comprised of CPG members, small businesses, the City Planning Commission, advocacy organizations such as Circulate San Diego, and the Building Industry Association. Its report, outlining 33 proposed changes to Policy 600-24, was completed in October and went before the City Council’s Land-Use & Housing committee Dec. 5. The committee voted to send the recommendations on to the full Council for a vote.
For local insight on the issue, La Jolla Light spoke with resident Joe LaCava, who spent nine years on the LJCPA, including five as its chair. LaCava was also an advisor to Circulate San Diego. What did he think about the recommendations and how they might affect the LJCPA, which Tetlow called “one of the most complex groups” in the City.
Unique to La Jolla
LaCava explained that LJCPA was formed in 1966 as “La Jollans, Inc.,” and changed its name to the La Jolla Community Planning Association in 1992.
“La Jolla is probably one of the busiest planning groups,” he opined. “A substantial part of the La Jolla community plan is in the coastal zone. Most projects require a Discretionary Permit, which is what we review and advise on. We have more reviews appealed to the City by their applicants simply because we review more. Our appeal rate is something like five percent, which is very low comparatively.”
(Note: The La Jolla Community Plan boundaries are the Salk Institute/La Jolla Village Drive on the north, Pacific Beach on the south, the ocean on the west, I-5/Gilman Drive and UC San Diego on the east. The plan was last updated in 2004.)
One of the task force recommendations was to require more diversity, especially renters, on the planning boards. LaCava agreed. “Half of the houses are rentals. Insuring the voice of people who rent is a good idea. I have seen renters treated differently.”
La Jolla also has what’s called “The 300 Foot Rule.” When someone applies for a Discretionary Permit, the City mails notices to owners and occupants of all buildings within 300 feet. This gives renters an equal opportunity to be heard during the review. LaCava added: “San Diego has a housing crisis. There are limited opportunities for infill development. This is not due to renters not being on planning boards. For our part, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped a multi-unit project.”
When asked how a community can balance the need for more housing with the preservation of neighborhoods, LaCava replied: “You have to hope for thoughtful development that respects the neighborhood. You also have to determine the character of the neighborhood — not what it once was, but what it is today.”
Another recommendation was to have discretionary land-use items heard earlier in the meeting, so applicants did not have to sit through all the unrelated items. La Cava disagreed. “I’ve always resisted this,” he said. “We usually have representatives from City and State offices at meetings. They need to get in, make their update, and get out. For many folks in the audience, this is as close as they get to local government.”
Of the 33 recommendations, the one giving LaCava the most concern is the requirement that each planning group member provide personal demographic information such as age, professional background, religion, race and any economic interest. “This could be a killer,” he said. “I’m afraid applicants could be offended at having to make these disclosures in order to volunteer on a community board. Recruiting can be hard enough.”
Of the task force recommendations, Wally Wulfeck, chair of the Community Planning Committee (an umbrella group representing all 42 planning groups) told The San Diego Union Tribune: “Every group has different concerns about their local community. A one-size-fits-all approach to regulating all of these is just not going to work.”
LaCava countered: “What remains to be seen is the bylaw template. If a particular group accepts the changes, they become part of the bylaws. If a planning group wants to do something different, they ask for City Council approval, and the Council generally supports them.”
Tetlow said the City Council will vote sometime in January on the proposed CPG recommendations, and then ask the City Attorney to draft the new policies. These, in legal form, will go back through the committees and the Council, most likely becoming effective in early 2021. When completed, he said: “The Community Planning Groups will come out stronger. Our goal is to strengthen, empower and professionalize.”
Many of the CPGs’ recent meetings included discussions about the proposed recommendations.
Share Your Experience
The City Planning Department (in response to the City Audit and recommendations from City Council’s Land Use & Housing Committee) is gathering public input on Community Planning Groups to determine how to enhance community engagement on land-use matters. To complete the questionnaire, log on to bit.ly/plangroupsurvey