Neighborhood groups sue over San Diego’s new policy allowing high-density housing farther from transit lines

Riders exit a San Diego trolley Blue Line train at the UC San Diego Health station in La Jolla.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The litigation argues that the city failed to analyze the policy’s potential environmental effects and that the rule update will encourage sprawl and damage neighborhoods.


Local groups that advocate for single-family homeowners are suing San Diego in an effort to block a new city effort to jump-start production of high-rise housing and backyard apartments.

A lawsuit filed April 7 by Livable San Diego and Neighbors for a Better San Diego seeks to overturn a 5-4 City Council vote in February to soften rules allowing taller apartment buildings and more accessory dwelling units — also known as “granny flats” or backyard units — when a property is near a mass transit line.

The City Council votes to soften existing rules governing where high-rise apartment buildings and additional backyard units can be built.

Developers of dense projects have been required to find sites within a half-mile of mass transit, but the new rules double that distance to one mile — making much more land eligible for projects that critics argue may change neighborhood character.

The policy change makes 5,224 additional acres close enough to transit to be eligible for developer density bonuses. It also increases by 4,612 the acreage eligible for the backyard apartment “bonus” program.

The lawsuit says city officials failed to properly analyze potential effects on air quality, noise, traffic, aesthetics and wildfire risk, as required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The suit seeks an injunction that would prevent San Diego planning officials from approving housing projects made possible by the update.

A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott said this week that Elliott would have no immediate comment on the litigation.

The two groups that filed the suit contend the city policy will encourage dense projects too far from transit for most residents to be willing to use it.

They cite studies that have indicated steep declines in transit use when bus and trolley stops are more than a half-mile from homes. They also note that a half-mile is a standard used by nearly all government agencies for transit incentives.

“This change would push high-density development farther from transit, worsening traffic congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” said Tom Mullaney, leader of Livable San Diego.

Geoff Hueter, leader of Neighbors for a Better San Diego, said city officials should be looking for ways to spur housing growth close to transit instead of encouraging it on sites too far for transit to be a realistic option for residents.

“The city needs to take a hard look at why existing density bonuses have failed to spur enough development on our commercial and transit corridors, where it makes the most sense from the standpoint of climate action and transit equity,” Hueter said.

Supporters of the policy change, including environmental groups and business groups like the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, say it will help solve the city’s most pressing problem: a lack of affordable housing.

Supporters often characterize opponents as being mostly wealthy owners of single-family homes lucky enough to have bought their homes before San Diego became one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation.

In contrast, the groups that filed the suit characterize themselves as residents promoting sensible growth and responsible density.

They say the policy change will ruin neighborhoods because the city hasn’t made sufficient plans to build complementary infrastructure for the dense housing. They also say the change will allow more dense housing in wildfire-prone areas.

In the 5-4 council vote in February, the change got support from members Sean Elo-Rivera, Kent Lee, Stephen Whitburn, Vivian Moreno and Monica Montgomery Steppe. It was opposed by members Joe LaCava (whose District 1 includes La Jolla), Jennifer Campbell, Marni von Wilpert and Raul Campillo.

Livable San Diego filed a separate lawsuit last fall that seeks to block San Diego from using developer money generated in wealthy neighborhoods to build libraries, fire stations and other infrastructure in low-income areas.

The plaintiffs argue that allowing developer money to be spent in neighborhoods far from the site of the development is unconstitutional and violates state laws.

That suit says a city policy called “Build Better San Diego” is unconstitutional and violates state law by ending the city’s decades-long practice of keeping developer fees in 44 separate pots of money and requiring the money to be spent in the specific neighborhood where it was collected.

Instead, the new policy will put the money into one pile and spend it in ways that prioritize neighborhoods that are low-income and historically underserved.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.