The Climate Problem Facing Coastal Building Height Limits

Science/Environment

The Climate Problem Facing Coastal Building Height Limits

Experts say people on both sides of the debate over whether to exempt the Midway district from the coastal height limit are failing to consider how future climate change will restrict who can live along the cooler coast.

The Midway District / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

In about two weeks, all San Diegans will get to weigh in on the future of just one neighborhood simply because its leaders want to build things taller than three stories.

Nobody can build higher than that in the area north of downtown and west of I-5 since voters approved a 1972 ballot measure enacting the city’s coastal height limit. Measure E on the city of San Diego ballot would let just one coastal neighborhood do so. Supporters say the area needs an exemption from the height limit in order to add much needed housing; opponents worry it’s a slippery slope that’ll lead to downtown-like towers blocking views of the ocean.

But what people on both sides of this policy battle fail to consider, experts say, is how future climate change will put pressure on restricting who can live along the cooler coast.

Already, “the more you move east, the higher the temperature will be, the lower the concentration of green spaces and healthy, built environments,” said Tarik Benmarhnia, a public health researcher at the University of California, San Diego. In other words, the coast is generally the healthiest and most comfortable place to live, and the height limit restricts how many people can live there.

Climate change, made worse by humans burning fossil fuels, will only make these realities more extreme. Average temperatures will increase from 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and heat waves will be longer and more intense because of it, according to a 2018 scientific report on San Diego’s climate future.

Benmarhnia’s research uncovered that pregnant California women were more likely to give birth prematurely during extreme heat waves. Accelerated deliveries can create complications for both mother and child, Benmarhnia said, and the data show Black mothers are especially at risk.

While San Diego may seem a place preserved by dependable and comfortable weather, scientists know the region spans three very different local climates. Each experiences huge temperature swings between the coastal, inland and desert zones on any given day. The coast is kept coolest not only due to coastal winds blowing over cold, Pacific Ocean water, but the mix of climate conditions make the pulsing marine layer – a low thicket of clouds that move in and out over the shore— a buffer from so much direct sunlight.

Unlike the coast, San Diego’s inland and desert zones are in higher wildfire risk zones than the coast, adding increased smoke and dust exposure to the burdens of those living outside the coastal zone experience. Eastern San Diegans also live with more exposure to harmful ozone, a natural and important part of our atmosphere that turns deadly when it’s mixed with car pollution and sunlight.

Benmarhnia is working to publish new research that shows how many San Diegans were hospitalized for heat illness by ZIP code. A map from that body of work already shows people living east of the coast suffer serious heat injury much more often.

Hospitalizations from Heat in San Diego by ZIP Code
This map of San Diego shows heat-related illnesses by ZIP code from 2004-2013. / Image via University of California, San Diego

“If we continue to sprawl out into the backcountry, which is what we’re doing in the county, we’re putting thousands of lives in danger when they could be living in the city with smaller carbon footprints,” said Mat Vasilakis, co-director of policy at Climate Action Campaign, which supports removing Midway’s height limit.

People opposed to Measure E say nixing the height limit in Midway is the beginning of a slippery slope and could inspire other coastal neighborhoods to do the same.

John McNab, leader of Save Our Access, a group opposing Measure E, warned during a debate over the measure at VOSD’s Politifest that “Hong Kong-style” apartment towers will spring forth on beachfront property if height limits go away.

Save Our Access filed a lawsuit against the city on Aug. 27, after Council members Jen Campbell and Chris Cate introduced Measure E. The group wants to block the measure, even if approved, because the city didn’t consider the environmental impacts of removing coastal height limits under California’s Environmental Quality Act.

And by environmental impacts, Save Our Access means protecting an ocean view, mostly.

“It’s like stadium seating. If someone stands up in front of you, you can’t see the field,” said Everett DeLano, an attorney representing Save Our Access in the lawsuit.

CEQA is mostly a disclosure law, meaning a public agency has to acknowledge all potential environmental impacts of a development project and attempt to avoid them.

Obstruction of the public’s view of public land, such as the coast or a marsh like that north of Midway, can be considered environmental impacts under CEQA. But the law doesn’t value one environmental impact, like protecting the public from extreme heat, over another like protecting coastal views.

Agencies disclose environmental impacts by writing an environmental impact report. The city wrote and approved one for Midway’s 2018 community plan without mentioning the coastal height limit, DeLano argues.

“The notion that somehow an analysis you did two years ago had anything to do with what you’re currently proposing is absurd,” DeLano said.

Midway’s 2018 community plan calls for more than 8,000 new housing units, the kind of density that the neighborhood can only “feasibly realize” by lifting height limits, said Dike Anyiwo, a Measure E supporter and board member of the Midway District community planning group.

This gets a little wonky. The community plan changed the neighborhood’s zoning to allow for that increased density. But zoning and the coastal height limit are two different things.

In other words, Midway could legally build higher now according to city zoning laws, but the coastal height limit – which is another kind of city law only undoable by a vote of the people –  trumps zoning. That’s true for the entire coastal area.

There’s another legal strategy height limit opponents can lean on if voters approve Measure E. California’s Supreme Court said in 2014 that if a public agency like the City of San Diego proposes a ballot measure, as is the case with Measure E, the city has to comply with CEQA. If the measure springs from a voter initiative, though, it is exempt from conducting an environmental impact report.

It gets more complicated, though. Like, does a ballot measure count as something CEQA has power over?

Natalie Kuffel, a land use attorney at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, pointed back at the same Supreme Court case law. So did the city comply or didn’t it? That is the question.

San Diego’s city attorney’s office declined to comment on the pending case.

“The plaintiff filed the lawsuit after ballots were printed. Therefore, there likely won’t be any substantive action on this case until after the election, since the challenge would be moot if it does not pass,” said Hilary Nemchik, a spokeswoman for the office.

Coastal Height Limit’s Flirtations With Inequity

The coastal zone isn’t without its own climate change threats.

The Midway District sits in a low-lying floodplain prone to future sea-level rise. That’s a threat the city knows well and plans to mitigate with some kind of solution, maybe infrastructure like a sea wall or levee to protect threatened properties.

“If property is right next to potential sea level rise on the coast, it’s better to have higher (buildings) because then the first floors can flood and you can keep equipment on upper floors,” said Carlos Martín, a fellow at the Urban Institute who co-wrote federal reports on Gulf Coast community recovery post-hurricane. “It might necessitate (removing the) height limit more so.”

Benmarhnia, the UCSD scientist, noted that those living along the coast might be more vulnerable to extreme heat because they’re not used to it or acclimatized, and housing generally doesn’t have air conditioning. His research noted a 15 percent spike in hospitalizations during hot weather along the coast where AC is less common.

But people along the coast are generally in a better economic condition than those living further east. Latinos are less likely to have AC than Whites, and renters are less likely to have it than homeowners, the study found. Dating back to San Diego’s history of redlining, a racist land use policy of the 1930s, Whites dominate coastal property ownership while non-Whites are much more concentrated further east.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced a plan earlier this year to densify development and cut back on urban sprawl, though the City Council has not yet taken it up for approval. The plan hinges on developers volunteering to pay for extra things like parks and low- to middle-income housing. In exchange, the city would allow higher, more dense buildings.

It’s an issue on which his competing replacements divert: Assemblyman Todd Gloria supports nixing the height limit in Midway, and Councilwoman Barbara Bry opposes it.

“I think the rush to decide how to redevelop the Sports Arena land is another backroom real estate deal,” Bry told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Gloria called it an “economic engine.” It’s at least partly true that more development means more money developers have to pay to a neighborhoods in impact fees, which supports parks and other infrastructure.

“It’s only going to get more expensive and time-consuming if we don’t do things now,” Anyiwo said.

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