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Taking the Community Out of Community Plans

If it can happen in Barrio Logan, can it happen in Clairemont, too?

Last year, San Diego’s City Council approved a new community plan for Barrio Logan. The shipbuilding industry in the neighborhood cried foul.

The industry argued restrictions on where its suppliers eventually could set up shop [1] would hurt business. It collected signatures [2] to force the issue onto the ballot, and voters citywide will weigh in next month.

The shipbuilders’ argument: This neighborhood decision has regionwide effects. The shipbuilding industry provides thousands of well-paying jobs and millions in annual economic impact so it makes sense for the entire city to weigh in.

This same type of argument could go for the city’s newest development controversy [3].

The city’s planning department released a study last month saying the city should allow taller buildings and more homes to be built right around two new trolley stations. The city would need to amend the community plans for Linda Vista and Clairemont.

Clairemont residents have risen up in opposition [4] and the city said it would pursue [5] a scaled down version of the plan.

But as with Barrio Logan, there’s an argument this neighborhood decision has broader effects. There’s a regionwide housing shortage that requires additional supply, and the state mandates to combat climate change mean getting people out of cars and into public transportation.

As the spirited debate following last week’s contentious meeting on the plan has shown, plenty of people consider this an issue of citywide concern.

“Every time housing development is prevented, it results in less opportunity for millenials and future generations to remain in the places they grew up or were educated in,” reader David Kissling wrote, in a representative response [6]. “The signs that the protesters had should have read: ‘Leave us in peace…and send our children to Arizona.'”

Hypothetically, an organized interest group like developers or transit advocates could try to force the issue to a citywide ballot because of its effect on the entire region, like shipbuilders in Barrio Logan did. In Clairemont, no one has discussed doing so.

But city leaders feared what happened in Barrio Logan would set a precedent for citywide involvement in local planning decisions.

“I think it would be a huge mistake,” City Councilman David Alvarez said when Barrio Logan’s plan passed. “It would send the wrong message to all of San Diego, and all the community plans that are being updated. One special interest group could just derail community plan updates. That’s very dangerous.”

Other plans haven’t been attacked this way. Otay Mesa updated its plan [7] this year and steered clear of major controversy. Ocean Beach’s plan is coming up for a vote soon and it likewise isn’t facing any major issues.

“Ballot box zoning” isn’t new. More than 600 development-related measures appeared on state ballots between 1986 and 2000, according to the Guide to California Planning, a text book written by the city’s planning department Bill Fulton.

City planners write plans. City Councils vote on plans. And California citizens have the right to challenge the plans with an initiative. That’s just the way it works.

But as Alvarez mentioned in the fall, this is the practical implication of city voters exercising a veto over a community plan using an argument based on citywide effects at a time when the city is getting ready to update almost a dozen more plans.