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One of the most high-profile environmental attorneys and activists in town fired a salvo against community opposition to new development projects last week.
Marco Gonzalez is calling out his friends again.
One of the most high-profile environmental attorneys and activists in town — whose name broke out of his field last year when he was one of three major figures to call for Mayor Bob Filner’s resignation — fired a salvo against community opposition to new development projects.
Neighborhoods that line up against dense development projects are motivated by selfishness and closet racism, he said, at a panel discussion I hosted last week on dense housing as part of the San Diego Housing Federation’s annual conference.
“It’s an interesting backdrop to practice law after 17 years being the community activist guy,” he said, “when I have to turn to my former clients and activists and call bullshit. And yeah, we use those terms because, frankly, when you get out of the public sphere, and you listen to what these people are saying, what they’re saying is, ‘I got mine, I have no responsibility to provide for them.’ And when the lights are really low, and the groups are really small, it’s, ‘Don’t bring the brown people here, don’t let the poor people in, let’s build a big gate around our little castle, because it’s really nice and pretty and we don’t want them to mess it up.’ And that’s what I’m fighting.”
Gonzalez, a principal of Coast Law Group, is no one’s idea of a conservative, or a pro-developer shill. He’s spent years fighting sprawl into San Diego’s backcountry, and played a role in a big court victory over the county’s planning agency, SANDAG, for its long-term transportation plan, which a judge agreed violates state law by favoring highway construction over public-transit projects.
Gonzalez didn’t refer to any projects or activists in particular, but two recent instances were mentioned in panel materials: Encinitas voters recently approved a Proposition A, giving themselves the right to vote down future development projects. And in San Diego, a proposal to build dense housing near a new planned trolley stop along Morena Boulevard, in Bay Park, ran into vocal community opposition this spring.
Here are other portions of Gonzalez’s comments, which underscore an emerging fissure in the liberal coalition between those who favor the creation of environmentally friendly, middle-class housing along transportation corridors, and those who oppose wealthy developers imposing themselves on existing communities.
What I want to talk about today is what I’ve seen in the communities that have fought these projects. Because, you know, there is the perception that we have become more enlightened, in terms of our citizenry, in terms of our views of social justice. But I’ll tell you what has been astounding to me. It is that, the “community character” argument is the most powerful sword being thrown up by communities who really don’t want brown people, who really don’t want poor people, who really don’t want to see a development come into their neighborhood because they’ve got theirs, and they don’t care if someone else can’t get the same thing. They don’t want old people to have a place to retire, they don’t want young people to have a place to live near the coast, and they simply say, ‘Wait, I can argue this nebulous concept of community character, and in certain circumstances our elected officials… become weathervanes and not compasses.
And that’s frustrating, and I’ll tell you what, as an environmentalist who came into this profession to stop the loss of the backcountry that I grew up in in North County San Diego, it was relatively easy to go out and fight sprawl development. Not easy in the cases with the county and the judges that we had to fight, it was never easy, but from a personal integrity standpoint, it was easy to be a naysayer, it was easy to go out there and say, ‘Hey, acres and acres of red tile roofs, long distances from transit, long vehicle miles to get to urban city centers, and the bleeding of our urban tax dollars out to the suburbs, all of that is bad.’
But at some point, we had to develop a set of presumptions that applied to our already developed areas. From within the environmental community I thought it was important for us to say, ‘If we’re going to fight sprawl, we have to incentivize infill’ (dense projects within already-developed areas). So we had to ask ourselves some tough questions, and what I’m doing now at this point in my career is asking those people who used to be my clients, those activists, those community-character-spouting residents, to really address these presumptions.
The first presumption is growth. Will growth occur? I think it will. Whether you believe SANDAG’s projections, whether you think it’ll come from across the border, from babies being born, from Michigan and Wyoming and the places where people love to come from, growth will occur, especially along our coastline, and the question is, what obligation do you have in a city like Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar, Carlsbad, even La Jolla, to accommodate some portion of that growth? And what I oppose is the notion that my former clients and my former base say ‘We have none, because we’ve got ours and we don’t have to provide anything for anyone else.’
My presumption is infill is better than sprawl. It seems like a no-brainer, but when you talk to environmentalists who live on the coast about how we’re going to infill that community, they say, ‘Screw it, we’d rather have sprawl because frankly we’ll hang out on the beach, and we don’t go to the backcountry anymore anyways.’ They won’t actually say that, but that’s what they say when I’m not around.
And then, as I mentioned earlier, the presumption is, if you’re an elected official, part of your job is to turn to that loud minority that will stand before you every month or every week and call you a crook and call you bought off, and turn to them and say, ‘hey, there is a bigger community, there are social issues and there are economic issues that I must balance against your loud voice, and pick a direction.’ Take a direction that is going to give you responsibility, whether it’s a legal responsibility… or whether it’s a moral responsibility to provide a place for the people who came up in your community, to come back to after school, or when their kids leave for school and they want to leave their mansion on the hill and find a nice townhome or condo, and have a vibrant downtown to work and play in.