On renting a home in Southeast San Diego last year, Tim Norris was delighted to live near a canyon. "When we first got here, we explored," Norris said, recalling he and his daughters hiked several acres of rugged, open space bordered by Varney Drive, Skyline Drive, 65th Street, and 66th Street. "There were cactuses and trees and birds. It was neat."
With piles of garbage, old tires, mattresses, and appliances at the bottom, it was also unsightly and stinky. So when earth-moving equipment scraped part of the canyon of all vegetation last year, Norris had mixed feelings. He welcomed the cleanup but missed the bit of wilderness now being replaced by a construction project.
San Diego City Council member Byron Wear and his business partner, Christopher Montgomery, have owned land in Pepperview Canyon since 1990. Montgomery, a novice developer, recently installed foundation framing for three homes at the canyon's southern end at 65th and Varney. Wear says he no longer owns property at that spot. However, he and Montgomery own five lots farther north, in the untouched portion of the canyon near 66th Street.
Environmentalists, community activists, and neighborhood volunteers are upset Montgomery graded part of Pepperview Canyon and a public easement in it without input from citizens. They wonder how the canyon can be developed without environmental oversight. They blame the City of San Diego's convoluted regulations and procedures, which allowed Montgomery to change the canyon's shape before seeking citizens' approval to tread on the easement. They fear what's left of Pepperview Canyon, including land co-owned by Wear and any foliage and wildlife remaining, will be destroyed by Montgomery's plans to build yet more homes.
"If these three houses are done, then the rest of the canyon is a done deal," said Robert Robinson, a member of the Encanto Neighborhoods Community Planning Group, which is considering Montgomery's request that the city relinquish its right to build an extension of Varney Drive in Pepperview Canyon. "I want to know what's down in that canyon that needs to be preserved." The advisory group of citizens recently postponed a decision until it receives an environmental review of the easement. "I have no quarrel with the project. I have a problem with the process. The city is asking me -- the public who pays taxes -- to give up the street before I know what wildlife is down there," Robinson said. "We have land being graded upon before there's any public input. Somehow or other, the cart is before the horse."
Located in Councilmember George Stevens's district, Pepperview Canyon straddles South Encanto and Alta Vista, where community-plan goals aim to protect hillsides, slopes, and canyons. However, because the area is zoned for single-family homes and was subdivided into parcels in 1917, Montgomery's residential building project -- except for the easement -- is not subject to a public hearing, environmental impact report, or hillside review.
San Diego's canyons, deemed a vital natural resource by the Sierra Club, have little protection unless they are designated open space. Despite good intentions of community plans, new regulations make it easier for developers to build in canyons, environmentalists say. As chairman of the city council's Land Use and Housing Committee, Wear supported the new regulations, which city officials contend offer more safeguards than the old rules.
A city bureaucracy in which the left hand doesn't know what the right foot is doing contributed to premature grading in Pepperview Canyon and enabled Montgomery to get a grading permit after he was accused of breaking the rules.
In November, San Diego's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department sent Montgomery a "notice of violation" for illegal grading. The notice resulted from a misunderstanding, said Montgomery, who -- like Wear -- is easygoing and talkative. "Can you tell a difference between grading and scraping?" Montgomery asked, explaining he cleared the site of debris and plants last summer after receiving a weed-abatement reminder from San Diego Fire & Life Safety Services and a garbage-removal notice from the city's Environmental Services Department.
The illegal dumping of trash -- an ongoing problem in Pepperview Canyon -- causes the department to ask property owners there to clean regularly, said Helen Heim, a deputy director. "We tell people to remove litter. We would never ask them to remove live vegetation. I don't know how people could misunderstand."
Wear said he was unaware of the illegal-grading notice, stressing he has no ownership or involvement in the construction site. "I didn't get any phone calls saying there was a problem on permits," Wear said. "Chris Montgomery has complete control over it. He has responsibility to manage the project, pay taxes, and make payments."
Although no one has suggested that Wear used his influence as a city councilmember to guide Montgomery through various agencies or get permits, Wear seems sensitive to that potential charge. "I didn't make any calls to city employees. When this project popped up in Environmental Services," Wear said, referring to trash accumulation in Pepperview Canyon, "they were taking actions independently. They didn't know I was involved."
Political watchdog Melvin Shapiro claims Wear broke the rules in disclosing his stake in Pepperview Canyon on several statements of economic interests, which are required annually of elected government officials. Shapiro filed complaints at the San Diego City Attorney's office and District Attorney's office, accusing Wear of conflict of interest, given the councilmember voted on land-use regulations and neighborhood improvements favoring his real estate holdings.
Wear dismisses the allegations as "ludicrous," noting Shapiro raised them during the mayoral campaign and even then failed to garner the interest of mainstream media. "There's no story here."
Although Wear acknowledges owning lots within Pepperview Canyon, he insists he does not own the three parcels where Montgomery plans to build homes. However, that conflicts with his 1999 statement of economic interests, which contains confusing and outdated information. For example, year after year Wear includes among his assets two lots that he and Montgomery lost to foreclosure in 1995. Wear also lists land at "65th & Varney," the same property he denies owning. Yet he neglected to specify the disposal date on his financial-disclosure form. Wear said he continues to list properties he no longer owns from "an abundance of caution."