By Joe Tash
In December, Lesa Heebner completed her second one-year term as mayor of Solana Beach. Heebner, who has served on the Solana Beach City Council since 2004, is one of five members of the council, who rotate through the mayor’s post each year. (Joe Kellejian will serve as mayor for 2012, his fifth time in the position.)
Recently, the Solana Beach Sun sat down with Heebner to discuss the issues facing the city in the coming year and accomplishments of the past 12 months. The interview is presented in a Q&A format, and has been edited for brevity.
Heebner is a graduate of UC San Diego, who worked as a stockbroker before starting her own business organizing and designing kitchens to maximize their functionality for healthy cooking and eating. She also ran a culinary school, has written cookbooks, and served as food editor and commentator for local print and broadcast media.
The interview touched on such subjects as planned improvements to the Coast Highway 101 corridor, development of property around the Solana Beach train station, and a recent decision to require City Council review of any home addition or remodeling project that adds 500 or more square feet to the building.
Question: For 2012, what are the key issues for the city?
Answer: I think the most important is the (Coast Highway) 101 renovation that’s coming up. We’ve sent out the plans for bid, we authorized that a couple of meetings ago. And we should be breaking ground on that some time in the spring.
Q.: Can you give a thumbnail sketch of what that project is?
A.: It’s from bridge to bridge, so from the Cliff Street bridge to the Dahlia Street bridge, that’s the location of this renovation. And it’s going to be widening the sidewalks to encourage more pedestrian activity and perhaps some sidewalk cafes. There’s going to be street trees throughout along the sidewalks. We’re doing angled parking.
In the design are 11 places, they’re sort of meeting places, they each have a very subtle theme to them, all associated with the healthy lifestyle, healthy outdoor lifestyle, that Solana Beach represents to so many people.
And one of them, for instance, is based on the constellations… it was my idea. The (constellations visible on the) exact day on July 1, 1986, when Solana Beach became a city. One other place is going to have a water feature, it’s sort of a learning spot, where you can see the different depths of the water and what sea life lives at each depth. Then another is, because we’re the busiest bicycle corridor in San Diego County, right here at 101 and Lomas Santa Fe, we’ve got a little bicycle sort of theme.
So again, the whole idea is to make this whole corridor a lot more pedestrian friendly, and encourage people to come down and spend their time, and we’re hoping, and it’s already starting, to generate private development along 101.
We got the money for this, I found it at SANDAG (the San Diego Association of Governments). We tagged on to Build America bonds that SANDAG was going out to market for. And we got $5.5 million and we had about a million-plus set aside already for this project.
Q.: So the idea is to spur development along this corridor?
A.: Yes, the right kind of development. The right kind of development is something that will fit in with the success we see along South Cedros. So that the buildings are a combination of large and small. That they have some real soul to them, so it doesn’t look like any old mall out in Temecula.
Q.: What about the plan to develop the property near the Solana Beach train station, which is owned by the North County Transit District or NCTD?
A.: We’d like by this year to come up with what exactly it is that we want to see. And when I say we I mean us, the council subcommittee is me and (Councilman) Mike Nichols, and NCTD, and we also have some community members who were part of the last community member group from the last project.
Where are you at now? I understand you have an agreement with NCTD, I think the last thing was doing the parking study?
A.: We’re working on a parking study and NCTD got a grant for a good portion of that and we have to pay a portion of that so we’re partners…what we’re learning from this project and we brought this up… and other cities are going to learn it if they haven’t already, and that is you cannot expect a private developer to pay the cost of transit parking.
Because all of these smart growth developments, these transit-oriented development sites, they have transit parking requirements and many of them have parking that they have to replace or add more, just like ours. And it’s expensive.
So what we have now in the recent 2050 RTP, the Regional Transportation Plan, that SANDAG just approved, in the first decade is our parking structure, $25 million. So we hope we can find the money in that RTP… there’s no way to do these projects without that kind of money. Absolutely no way.
Q.: By this time next year will there be an actual project, this is what we want to do, or do you think it will take longer?
A.: We might be in the process of that by next year at this time. Things go so slow in government, it’s really frustrating, but what we want to make sure is that there’s a good match. And we want to make sure that the developer understands the very specific needs the city has and the very specific needs the district has. And we have to develop those and that may take some time. And then were going to put those out and see who’s interested in it. It’ll go to the board of NCTD and our council.
Q.: When could we see construction begin?
A.: Maybe 2014. I would love to say tomorrow. This community, although everybody was opposed to that last project (Cedros Crossing) because it was so over the top, literally, way over the top, but nobody wants to see an asphalt parking lot there, we really recognize that we need to have a lot more vibrancy there, it’s underutilized real estate. Again, we just want to make sure what’s done is done right…
Q.: What else will you be working on in 2012?
A.: The development review permit process. That’s an important thing were going to be working on.
One of the big issues that has come up in projects that we have denied is how does it fit in with the community, the neighborhood character, in terms of bulk and scale, and it’s really hard for us to deny things, we don’t like to deny things. But we also don’t want to see a neighborhood ruined by something that really is out of scale and out of character.
So what the development review permit process that Councilmember Nichols and I, along with staff, are going through, is trying to make a clearer presentation of what the council has to find ... and we’re looking at doing a tool kit. Currently, with our view assessment ordinance, you have a tool kit, it’s sort of the do’s and don’t’s.
So it’s going to be all sorts of visuals that give the property owner and the architect a lot more input to start with, so they’ll understand and be able to sail through the process. And make something that they might have thought in the past was almost arbitrary, make it a lot more predictable.
Q.: What about finances, a lot of cities are facing tight budgets… in coming year is that something Solana Beach is going to be dealing with?
A.: There’s no doubt were going to be dealing with it, we’re hoping not so much though. We’re seeing some turnaround in the numbers of sales tax increases, property taxes are back in the black. For the first time in our history we decreased in our property tax revenues last year. It’s already coming up, the preliminary numbers are showing us improving.
We put off doing a portion of our general plan update until future years. We’re still going to embark on the land use and circulation part this next year and that’s going to be a big deal, a lot of community input for us. But were doing it as sort of a do-it-yourself general plan rather than hiring some fancy consultant out of town who doesn’t really even know who we are.
Q.: What are the challenges facing the city, what are the potential potholes or roadblocks that you might run into this year?
A.: We’ve got to get this redevelopment issue settled, it’s at the courts now, whether we will be able voluntarily join back in… (Gov. Jerry Brown) is getting rid of all redevelopment agencies, that’s in court, but you are able to then basically pay a ransom and be able to participate, which for us could be really worth it…
What happens in the redevelopment agency is you pick areas of your city that are blighted, and you could definitely see it that 101 is blighted and some parts of Eden Garden… rather than receiving every dollar that you pay in property tax if you live in Solana Beach, the city gets 17 cents. But if it’s a redevelopment agency you get 70 cents. So then we have that extra money, the increment between the two, and we’re able to invest it into other things that will enhance the good of the community in that redevelopment area.
The other issue is affordable housing. We have mandates that come down from the state that we have to build housing and it has to be in dense areas which should be around transit areas. And look what we’re facing on South Sierra. Somebody came forward and proposed a 10-unit affordable housing development and they’re having conniption fits, saying that they’re all going to be criminals…
Q.: So is that something you’re concerned about, do you share those concerns?
A.: Well, first of all it’s an issue that will come before us so I haven’t made a decision on it, but I do think that what we have heard in three public workshops, that we’ve worked with the developer to address a number of the objections to it. The only objection that cannot be addressed is that they are low-income people. And if that’s the only objection, I don’t see how you get around that type of bias.
We have to make sure it doesn’t harm the health, well-being of our city. We asked at the last workshop, Captain Sarro, Sherri Sarro, our sheriff’s captain, and she said no, there’s a lot of things number one that they’re doing in the development, like surveillance and (that) type of stuff, number two, each applicant has to go through a background check including criminal activity, once a year.
There are all sorts of considerations that come with the whole affordable housing issue. So it’s community concerns, state mandates that come with sanctions if they’re not met and legal challenges to whatever side of the decision we make.
Q.: I’d like to finish by taking a look back at this year, what were the highlights, things that stood out?
A. Well the 25th anniversary, that was a good thing, that was really nice, and the opening of the community center, which coincided with that celebration, that was a wonderful example of community building, literally, the community built that. The city contributed some money but the community raised two-thirds of it.
We’ve taken an old dilapidated building and within Coastal Commission parameters, renovated it to be a really good resource that we’ll be able to use. We’re taking a look at changing the uses, in the past nobody wanted to use it, oh my God it was falling apart, it was like held together with termite spit, it was that bad… So anyway it’s a beauty. So that’s exciting.
One of the things that was also important was the I-5 expansion.
I really think we have a lot to thank Senator Christine Kehoe for. Because what the SANDAG board, without my vote, wanted to do was expand it to 10 general purpose lanes plus four managed lanes. So Chris, thank goodness, got this bill through and some compromises with SANDAG. (They settled on) eight plus four in the right of way as much as possible. That’s huge.