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S.D. council passes reforms that may make community planning groups more diverse but possibly less powerful

The La Jolla Community Planning Association holds a meeting July 7 online.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Community Planning Association )

The San Diego City Council approved sweeping changes Sept. 13 to the city’s 42 neighborhood planning groups in an effort to diversify their membership and make them better organized, but critics call the changes a developer-driven effort to squelch public opposition to dense housing projects.

Critics say the changes, which the council approved 6-1, will eliminate the ability of the community groups to appeal development approvals for free. Developers also will be only “encouraged” to meet with the groups, not strongly recommended to do so.

Supporters say the changes will boost demographic diversity by requiring more aggressive term limits and encouraging the groups, which are now made up primarily of White homeowners, to recruit more renters and people of color.

The council’s action maintains the neighborhood groups’ “vital role in community planning without triggering changes to the [city] charter,” Councilman Joe LaCava, who initially proposed the reforms last year and whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said in a statement. “It simultaneously maintains CPG [community planning group] autonomy to elect their leaders, encourages greater community participation and continues the city’s technical, educational and financial support.”

“We must preserve San Diegans’ voice in the planning of their community’s future,” LaCava added, citing his own experience as a member of community planning groups in La Jolla.

The reform measure, he said, “doubles down on the city’s support of these groups for greater education, participation and representation.”

La Jolla has 10 recognized groups — including ones for La Jolla Shores, Bird Rock and the Recreation Center and subcommittees under the La Jolla Community Planning Association — but only LJCPA would be affected by the reforms, LaCava has said.

LJCPA President Diane Kane has strenuously objected to the changes, saying previously that “this proposal does not stand a good possibility of reforming community planning groups, it is going to kill them.”

“It’s going to mean more work, and they are stripping our power to have any say in the development projects,” she said.

LJCPA trustees have said the loss of free appeals will be especially damaging since LJCPA has regularly appealed city decisions it disagrees with.

LJCPA president says City Councilman Joe LaCava’s plan won’t reform community planning groups, ‘it is going to kill them.’

Kane could not be reached for new comment this week, but former LJCPA trustee Kathleen Neil told the La Jolla Light that the new policy “is governing from the top down, not from the bottom up. I do not see how this is meaningful reform or that it will increase the participation of individuals in the planning of their city or community. Likewise, this ‘reform’ only creates more tasks for volunteers without giving our ‘city of communities’ additional benefits, assistance or rationale to complete these tasks. Indeed, with this new policy, CPGs have lost one of the most meaningful tools for all community groups (regardless of the decision to use this tool) — the free appeal allowed by CPGs to seek greater scrutiny of development.”

“I continue to maintain that the new policy is unworkable, gives the city unprecedented control of CPG membership, election and succession rules (despite them now being organizationally independent of the city) and, if implemented, will result ultimately in the demise of the CPGs as we know them,” Neil added.

Councilman Stephen Whitburn said he believes “we should do everything we can to encourage the planning groups to be more diverse. I believe community planning groups are most relevant and most influential when they are representative of the entire community.”

Supporters of the reforms say they will make the groups more transparent, better organized and less likely to oppose the types of dense developments the city is pursuing to help solve its housing shortage. The groups would have to comply with state open-meetings laws and operate websites that are independent of the city.

The changes were sparked by complaints from the city auditor and a San Diego County grand jury that the planning groups are unprofessional, unpredictable and not adequately transparent.

The groups also have been criticized for being too aggressive in seeking to block housing projects and for having stagnant membership that doesn’t reflect the neighborhoods they represent. City Attorney Mara Elliott says they need to operate more independently for liability reasons.

Critics say the changes will severely burden the volunteer groups and create membership goals akin to quotas. They also say some groups, particularly in low-income areas, could be overwhelmed and forced out of existence.

Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group member David Moty said wealthy communities will be able to afford appeals while groups in low-income areas won’t.

Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert tried to soften the impact of the loss of free appeals by encouraging Mayor Todd Gloria’s office to consider increasing the $500 annual stipend each group gets. An appeal costs $1,000, so the stipend would have to be tripled for each neighborhood group to be able to pay for one appeal and other current expenses per year.

On diversity, the groups will now be required to revise their bylaws to designate seats for renters, nonprofit groups and other organizations and create recruitment plans to help fill those seats. The designated seats are a goal, not a requirement.

“I don’t understand the city’s desire to mandate inclusiveness instead of incentivizing inclusiveness,” said Andrea Schlageter, leader of an umbrella panel of neighborhood groups called the Community Planners Committee.

But supporters say change is necessary.

“The extensive rules, subject matter and time commitment favors older, upper-middle-class, retired homeowners who do not want the city to change,” said resident Sharon Gehl. “The boards rarely represent all of the stakeholders in their community now, let alone those who might live or work there in the future.”

Other changes include tightening term limits, including a requirement that members who hit the cap — usually eight or nine years — be ineligible to serve for one year. Also, requirements will be eliminated that members must have attended a certain number of group meetings to serve on the board or vote in board elections.

Councilman Raul Campillo, who unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would have restored the free appeals waivers, cast the lone dissenting vote. Council members Vivian Moreno and Jennifer Campbell were absent.

Community planning groups have until the end of 2023 to comply with the new requirements.

Neil said “the only substantive leverage the CPGs have is to not apply for city recognition and to offer to continue operating as they do currently, sans city recognition (whatever this means),” and without the annual stipend and free use of city facilities.

“If all or most of the CPGs did this, it would render the new policy meaningless and hopefully cause the city to rethink its approach,” she said. ◆

Updates

11:26 a.m. Sept. 15, 2022: This article was updated with additional comments.