Over the past several months, San Diego’s community planning groups have been under the microscope, painted as a thorn in the side of developers, “frequent opponents to change and progress” and the ones to blame for the housing crisis. Developers complain about delays or denials for their projects and groups like Circulate San Diego, the San Diego Housing Commission and the San Diego County Grand Jury have proposed various planning board reforms.
“We need to ‘declaw’ the planning groups and the infrastructure of policy-making bodies in communities mostly composed of white and gray hairs that don’t have a future and empower those that do,” said real estate economist Gary London at a local Urban Land Institute forum in January, reported in a San Diego Union Tribune article.
Those kinds of comments have stung the members of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board and at its April 26 meeting, the board responded to two new reports proposing planning group reform: “Democracy in Planning” published by Circulate San Diego and the Grand Jury’s findings after a citizen’s complaint alleged that the city’s planning groups “tend to delay hearing certain items as a method of restricting growth in their communities.”
“Housing affordability has become an issue and there is a continuing mantra that one of the impediments to getting things built in the city are community planning boards in general,” said Carmel Valley Community Planning Board Vice Chair Barry Schultz. “And that voice is getting louder and louder.”
Last fall, the board responded to the San Diego Housing Commission report “Addressing the Housing Affordability Crisis” which proposed disbanding planning groups and replacing them with a citywide board as one solution to streamline the approval process to get more homes built in the city.
“There are some that have issues but I don’t see community planning boards as being the issue that prevents us from developing housing that’s affordable,” said Schultz, who serves as the board representative on the Community Planners Committee. “I think we’re an easy target.”
San Diego has 43 community planning groups that cover 52 geographical areas, providing advisory decisions to the city on local land use and transportation projects. The complaint made to the Grand Jury suggested consolidating those 43 groups into six.
After its investigation, the Grand Jury made recommendations to the mayor to determine if some consolidation of planning groups could occur, to determine if members of the planning department staff should attend all planning group meetings and that board members complete training each time they are re-elected or re-appointed.
Circulate San Diego’s report focused more on changing the way boards conduct meetings and elect members, particularly to promote diversity. The report stated that length and structure of meetings can be a deterrent to potential participants and that the agendas should prioritize action items that inform city decision-making. The report suggested time limits for meetings, timely production of meeting minutes and encouraged boards to use social media for outreach.
The report also suggested councilmembers appointing a limited number of board members.
“We do a lot of things that are in both reports already,” said Carmel Valley Planning Board Chair Frisco White, who voiced concern that the reports push an agenda to eliminate planning boards altogether.
He noted that consolidation has already occurred with the Carmel Valley board, which includes the communities of Carmel Valley, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Fairbanks Country Club, North City Subarea 2 and Via De La Valle.
Carmel Valley meetings can run long (the April 26 meeting went until 11 p.m.) but they do produce and review minutes. While they do not have a website or social media presence, White said they do not seem to have a problem getting people to weigh in on controversial projects.
Board members opposed the idea of councilmembers appointing members, politicizing and potentially stacking a board. Board members said they were in favor of the suggestion to have city staff attend more meetings. Prior to the recession in 2008, a planning department representative attended almost every meeting. According to the Grand Jury findings, as development activity declined, the city reduced staffing levels and the planning department reduced the frequency of staff attendance.
While board members were not sure how the reports define “diverse”—they noted their members are very unique and not all of them gray-haired.
“If you look at this board, we’re diverse in every direction except maybe economically,” said board member Ken Farinsky, by nature of the communities the board represents.
Of the planning board’s 10 current members, half are in development—the board has an architect as its chair with White, real estate brokers, a land use attorney and representatives from Pardee Homes and Kilroy Realty have held seats. Local businesses such as The Perfect Pineapple’s Annie Glenn have a voice on the board, as does Vic Wintress, the founder of the League of Amazing Programmers, a nonprofit youth computer programming school.
All are volunteers.
“We’re here because we care,” said board member Debbie Lokanc who took offense to the notion that the board is a barrier to development, not to mention the “white hair without a future” jab. “We’re the people that really care about what’s going on in this community.”
Lokanc said they often work with developers to make projects better and they have not often opposed housing –after working with Kilroy Realty, the board split 5-5 on One Paseo, which will bring 608 residential units in 2019. The board lobbied for 20 percent of it to be affordable; City Council approved the project with a commitment for 10 percent affordable housing.
“The first thing I felt when I started reading this was it was done by a bunch of people that have an agenda for more transit, more growth and more density regardless of what the local community wanted,” Farinsky said.
Farinsky said San Diego seems to be missing a level of government and the planning boards become the default governing body, especially for their community of some 50,000 people. For many, it’s the closest they come to government and serves as a venue to hear reports from elected officials and weigh in on local issues of concern
Board member Shreya Shah Sasaki said she didn’t translate a lot of the reports’ findings to their planning board in particular, noting many reforms aimed at providing for more involvement for the underserved areas in San Diego.
“I think it’s an opportunity for our board to take leadership on what works for us and how we’ve been able to work with the community and developers,” Sasaki said.
Joe LaCava, former chair of the Community Planners Committee who contributed to the Circulate San Diego report, said that there is no hard analysis to prove the claims that planning groups slow down the process or kill housing projects.
LaCava estimates he’s seen about 35 of the 42 city planning groups and they all have 42 different personalities.
“Some of them function at a high level, some don’t function so well and no one is doing anything about the dysfunction,” LaCava said. “I think it’s really more of a condemnation of the city for abandoning planning groups. There used to be a lot of support, there used to be more training, the city doesn’t do that anymore. The city needs to step up that game so that (planning groups) are better informed.”
As for the representation on the boards, LaCava had a suggestion of his own: don’t be lazy.
“If you don’t like the planning group, get organized and elect the people you like,” LaCava said.