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Sunroad Probe Calls for Consolidating Development Review

Monday, July 30, 2007 | Primarily seen as a way for cutting costs, the streamlining of San Diego city government is now being considered by Mayor Jerry Sanders as a remedy to the controversy involving the Sunroad Enterprises office building.

A recent investigation by Sanders’ staff into the construction of a tower near Montgomery Field airport in violation of federal height limits proposed combining the Development Services Department and City Planning & Community Investment Department. According to the mayor’s investigators, overhauling the city’s entire review process and the organization of the 650 employees housed in both departments would have prevented the communication problems that played a part in the city’s botched review of the project.

“They should not be separated, for one contributes to the understanding and smooth functioning of the other,” Sanders’ Office of Ethics & Integrity stated in its July 19 report.

But the prospect of merging development services and city planning, and the 650 employees working in those agencies, was quickly met with skepticism. Within a week of the recommendation, officials at City Hall and in the development community said they doubted mistakes made reviewing the Kearny Mesa tower had anything to do with the partition of the two departments, instead blaming the company and other factors that slowed the city’s response to the issue.

“I don’t believe the separation of planning and development services were what caused the problems,” said Jim Waring, who as Sanders’ land-use chief supervises the directors of both departments.

The Development Services Department is akin to a building department. It’s where a developer seeks the proper permits for a construction project. The Planning Department is where future development of the city and its various neighborhoods are mapped.

The departments often work together, as planners provide building regulators with the guidelines that set out the city’s vision for growth. Development services checks that planning documents comply with other land-use restrictions. But the two are funded differently, as builder fees provide the money for development services and taxes pay for planning.

At stake in the newest proposal: The potential transformation of the development process in San Diego at a time when growth advocates and opponents are closely watching the moves of Sanders, the first mayor to control the city’s land-use bureaucracy.

The mayor, who oversees the government’s day-to-day operations, has already consolidated a significant amount of power since the city transitioned to a strong-mayor form of government in 2006. Land-use regulation has been no exception, as planning and development services are closer together now than ever in the city’s modern history.

Waring and others said they are unsure whether combining the two would generate better communication or efficiency within the regulatory process. More so, many said the disconnection preserves a needed safeguard, as the barrier forces the city to balance a project’s practical uses with its place in the city’s master vision for growth. Others agree with the report’s authors, claiming there are advantages to mixing the staffs.

Sanders said he anticipates he will make a decision on that recommendation and others hailing from the Sunroad report in September. “That is the one that needs the longest time to look at because it’s so complicated and it has a lot of implications,” Sanders said.

Changing Hands

Traditionally, the two departments have been tucked away in different corners of the city government.

Up until the early 1990s, the Development Services Department was under the purview of the city manager, who ran the administration of the city, and the City Council controlled the Planning Department directly.

“The interpretation of the charter at the time was that the mayor was responsible for long-range planning and thinking and the city manager was responsible for the day-to-day,” said New School of Architecture professor Michael Stepner, a former city planner.

But the dynamic was often criticized. In an attempt to make planning more formulaic and less influenced by elected officials, developers sought to bring planning under the city manager’s control in the 1960 through two ballot measures. Both failed.

“The whole reaction was that planning was a socialist form of government,” Stepner said.

Tensions ran high in the 1980s. San Diego was growing at a fevered pace, and the council directed staff to slow development down, Stepner said. At the same time, an economic slowdown occurred, but the reaction in the business community was that halt in growth was the Planning Department’s doing, Stepner said.

Later, a sex scandal hit the department. Planning Director Bob Spaulding resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed a female employee. The employee was offered $100,000 by the city attorney and city manager to settle the case confidentially. The council, which oversaw the department, was unaware of the settlement.

Combined, criticism against the council’s slow-growth policies and the sex scandal forced the movement of the Planning Department to the city manager.

After Sanders took office in 2005, he reorganized the arrangement further. Planning was combined with agencies overseeing redevelopment projects and economic development under an agency known as the City Planning and Community Investment Department.

Sunroad’s Path to Further Change

Discussion of the planning agency’s place at City Hall surfaced again in the fallout of the Sunroad controversy.

The investigation claimed the city botched its review of a San Diego County Regional Airport Authority zoning document. That allowed the developer to build an office building 20 feet taller than the Federal Aviation Administration’s 160-foot height limit.

The airport authority’s document was distributed to three city departments: planning, development services and airports. However, the document was never properly analyzed, according to the investigation.

JoAnne SawyerKnoll, the head of the Office of Ethics & Integrity and the report’s author, listed among her findings that there was “little communication” between the two departments. To improve coordination, she proposed combining the two. She said the idea was relayed to her by Bob Copper, a former development official at the county who was a consultant to the investigation. Copper was on vacation as of press time.

“It was his view, and I was convinced after talking to him, that given the state of how things operate right now, it was beneficial for the two groups to be integrated under one department,” SawyerKnoll said.

But the report noted that in the summer of 2006, when Sunroad’s violation of the 160-foot height limit was discovered, officials in the planning and development services agencies communicated often and nearly instantaneously as the Sunroad controversy unfolded.

Upon learning on June 19, 2006, that the FAA deemed the building a hazard, Deputy Development Services Director Kelly Broughton e-mailed the news to planner Keith Greer the same day. On July 26, 2006, when Sunroad informed development services it would proceed to build to 180 feet, Greer was notified the next day. When city officials began mulling the government’s response that August, planning and development services officials were in attendance.

A Debate Develops

SawyerKnoll and Waring, two members of the executive team that meets regularly with Sanders, said officials within the Mayor’s Office hadn’t discussed the proposal prior to the report.

Waring said he will study the concept if the mayor requests it and follow whatever decision he makes, but he is skeptical. The agencies have two different mindsets, he said.

“It’s not a conflict, but it’s a different worldview,” Waring said. “Planning is supposed to be about thinking about what changes we should be making for the long-term future of San Diego. Development services’ job is to issue permits based on regulations in the land development code.”

Fred Maas, developer of Black Mountain Ranch, a 4,677-acre community in northern San Diego, has several years of experience with the dynamic between the two departments.

He said planners encouraged his company to embrace urbanist principles when designing the community, such as building roundabouts to slow down traffic on thoroughfares. At the same time, the Development Services Department was supporting the concerns of the Fire Department, which disliked the roundabouts because they made emergency access more difficult.

“I think it’s a healthy debate to have, but there are lots of real world guys like me with nothing to do with the Sunroad issue who could make the case for combining or for the Chinese wall just the same,” he said. “There will be some instances where it may work, and some where it may not.”

Others in the development industry and the planning profession had similar responses. Combining the two departments, they said, is worth studying if it results in the improvements they want.

For developers, it means more efficiency in the process so that plans and permits are processed more rapidly. “The government has an obligation to regulate land use, everyone knows that. But they have a duty to be as efficient as possible,” said Matt Adams, vice president of government affairs for the Building Industry Association of San Diego County.

Planners and environmentalists said they want permits to be more carefully reviewed with land-use requirements in mind. If it means planners would sit alongside a permit official to remind them of the planning goals the city is striving for, they would be in favor of the reorganization.

“That way, they can always make sure the long-range plan is included in the short-term decisions,” Stepner said.

But others see it as an inviolable system of checks and balances. When the planning staff submits a land-use plan, it is the Development Services Department’s role to conduct the environmental review. In addition, Development services checks with the planning department whenever an individual project is processed to see that it complies with the planning guidelines.

“They must be two very separate entities because they serve two very different functions, and that’s by design,” Councilwoman Donna Frye said.

As Sanders mulls the discussion over the next several weeks, observers say they don’t believe the mayor’s response will be as simple as whether the departments should or shouldn’t be combined. Imperfections in the process, they said, will not be improved solely by joining the two.

“Let’s be clear about something here,” Adams said. “A simple combination of two departments will not solve the problem.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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