Councilmember LaCava leads San Diego’s planning group reform effort

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board during a past meeting.
(Karen Billing)

After many years of rumblings and recommendations about community planning group reform, this may be the year in which the city of San Diego changes how its advisory boards operate.

District 1 Councilmember Joe LaCava has embarked on the process of updating the San Diego City Council policy that governs the city’s 42 community planning groups, seeking to fill the gaps in the process to promote inclusivity and transparency.

LaCava’s goal is to amend the council policy to bring community planning groups in compliance with the city charter, creating separation from the city while retaining the structure and integrity of planning groups and improving opportunities for broader community representation.

The plan is for the draft reforms to go before the city’s land use and housing committee in March and before city council for approval in April or May. By the summer, planning groups would need to seek recognition from city council under the updated policy.

LaCava said what will not change is that community planning groups (CPGs) will still be recognized and indemnified by the city and they will retain the ability to provide feedback on development projects and infrastructure priorities.

“It will still be a venue for the community in many ways, that won’t change, they just won’t have the staff support which many groups not always had,” he said.

Some planning group members have shared concerns that the reforms threaten to weaken or dismantle planning groups to the point that they lose all influence, silencing community voices to the benefit of developers and special interests.

“This is just gutting planning boards, it’s just really apparent,” said Torrey Hills Community Planning Board Chair Kathryn Burton at their January meeting. “It’s just another way to stifle community input.”

At the Jan. 25 Community Planners Committee meeting, Torrey Pines Planning Group member Eduardo Savigliano said a number of the reforms feel like a big loss for planning group operations and reflect a disconnect with the city.

“People in the CPGs, we’re something special,” Savigliano said of the hundreds of volunteers who serve their communities. “I think that the city should be bending over backward to increase the participation and make it easier for us and make the conversation more fluid.”

Planning group reform has been percolating in the city for several years. Critics of planning groups have said the groups seek to block needed housing projects, oppose change and progress, and have stagnant memberships that don’t accurately reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they represent.

In 2018, the San Diego County Grand Jury conducted an investigation following a citizen’s complaint alleging that the planning groups delayed hearing items as a method of restricting growth in their communities. The grand jury found that delays are often due to limited citizen interest in volunteering for planning groups and proposed various reforms, such as consolidating CPGs.

A 2019 city audit resulted in recommended changes to the council policy to promote transparency, compliance and diverse community representation as well as to provide annual training and expanding annual reports. That year the city attorney issued a legal analysis that said the current structure conflicts with the city charter and recommended changes.

LaCava, who has been spearheading the reform effort, said he has planning groups in his DNA—he started out in La Jolla and was chair of the Community Planners Committee.

He released his first draft of reforms in November 2021: “To put it bluntly, it was not well received,” he said. In the following months, he said he tried to absorb the criticisms and make changes to the document.

“We really tried to listen to the key things that were causing concerns and fears,” LaCava said. “There’s a sense that we’re building a dialogue around the issues and how to solve them.”

At the Jan. 25 CPC meeting, LaCava shared some of the latest changes to the draft, based on input received.

The board stipend will continue and he confirmed that city meeting spaces will remain available to groups without charge. CPGs will lose the ability to file free project appeals and the city would not commit to having an assigned planner at every month’s meeting but they will be accessible to the group (for several years many local groups have not had a planner in attendance every month).

LaCava said he couldn’t speak for other council members but he would continue to send a representative to all the planning groups in District 1.

One proposed reform generating a lot of feedback is the elimination of all attendance requirements to serve on the board or to vote in the elections.

“We really saw that as a disincentive for folks to get involved in their planning groups,” LaCava said. “There is no other organization, board or commission or running for public office that requires any level of attendance.”

All of the city’s CPGs have different attendance requirements in their bylaws. As an example, Carmel Valley requires candidates to have attended two meetings in the last year prior to the March election and they do not require eligible voters to have attended a meeting to vote.

LaCava said the requirement is still being discussed and debated: “Attendance is pretty tricky.”

At the Jan. 20 San Diego Planning Commission meeting on the topic of the reforms, Francine Maxwell of the Encanto CPG said attendance is very important because it shows who is dedicated—without a requirement, a special interest could walk in and take over a planning group, something the Torrey Hills board fought back in 2002.

“You would have the developers as happy as a hog eating slop to have this passed,” Maxwell said.

Others argued that the attendance requirement creates a barrier to getting involved, particularly for groups that are underrepresented: “Interest is not reflected by attendance and to say so is a privilege,” said San Diego resident Liana Cortez.

The reforms seek to encourage, but not mandate, that planning groups be more assertive in trying to get more community involvement from a broader representation of the community, particularly renters. Many of the groups will argue that they have already been doing this but it is difficult to fill roster seats.

“The city has this perception that we’re keeping people off the planning groups and not engaging them,” said Mira Mesa Town Council member Jeff Stevens. “It’s just participating in a planning group trades off with everything else people have to do with their time. There aren’t many people who are willing to take the time to do it.”

One thing LaCava heard loud and clear was the CPGs desire to preserve their space on the city’s website, versus the proposal in the draft that planning groups would be removed from the city site and be responsible for their own independent sites.

As it stands now, planning group agendas and minutes can be found on a common area on the city’s website.

“I don’t know why anyone interested in outreach would be interested in removing that,” CPC Chair Wally Wulfeck said. “I can’t stress how important it is for public to find information and if city doesn’t support websites, some groups won’t be able to have them.”

Some planning group information on the city’s website is out of date and many groups do not have their own websites. Locally, only the Torrey Pines CPG has an independent site.

Gail Friedt of the Uptown Planners said planning groups should understand how younger people get their information and encouraged the use of social media accounts in addition to group websites. She said in her search, she found only Uptown and North Park had any presence on platforms like Twitter.

Per the draft document, private project applicants are not required to present their application to CPGs although the city encourages applicants to conduct robust engagement with CPGs, the community and project neighbors.

Shital Parikh, a member of the Del Mar Mesa Planning Group, worried that if developers aren’t required to come to the CPGs, the community might not find out about project proposals or be able to provide input. She said there have already been projects that they felt were done behind their backs and she wanted there to be a way to ensure that citizens’ concerns are heard and that they don’t feel completely ignored.

LaCava said that applicants have not been required in the past to go to CPGs but many have routinely gone. There is language in the code that he is trying to preserve which states that the notice of project applications and decisions would continue to be sent to the CPGs. And hopefully, he said, a city council member would fight the good fight alongside their district’s planning group.

“I still believe in the community planning groups,” LaCava said. “I know it sounds like empty words but we’re trying to preserve as much of the structure as we can under this new requirement.”

“(Community planning groups) are really important to have.”