The same bureaucracy that created the Sunroad fiasco has now brought forth the Mount Soledad calamity, with the enthusiastic assistance of politicians. The names of the mayors and councilmembers have changed, but the money jingling in their purses and pockets is from the same source: real estate developers.
The genesis of the Mount Soledad crisis was in the mayoral election of 1992. Peter Navarro wanted to prevent the city from turning into a Los Angeles. Susan Golding wanted economic growth at any price. The establishment waged a well-financed hate campaign against Navarro. The economy was in a deep recession, and voters found jobs more enticing than quality of life.
Golding went right to work restructuring government to pay back her supporters. Under previous mayors, the City had an Environmental Quality Department with its own director, board, and appeals process. The public had a role in environmental decisions. But Golding cared only about the comfort of developers. As a symbolic public gesture, one of her aides swapped jackets with a building industry official. She promised to "streamline" the permitting process. The Environmental Quality Department was folded into the Planning Department, which was later put under the Development Services Department.
"Think about those words, 'Development Services Department,' " says La Jolla architect Tony Ciani. "It's a nice way to advertise that you are developer friendly, but what happens to the other part of the equation: environmental policy?"
That's where Mount Soledad comes in. Back in the 19th Century, geologists thought the area might be a disaster waiting to happen. "The pioneers who came here 150 years ago wouldn't build there," says Ciani. The area was susceptible to landslides. Building on a slope made no sense, particularly with the threat of earthquakes or ground-disturbing rumbles from the nearby Rose Canyon Fault.
But that bitch goddess, Greed, was too tempting. As La Jolla real estate escalated in value, homes were built on Mount Soledad. The process accelerated in the 1960s. San Diego's housing-compatible land had already been built on, "and what was left were coastal canyons, inland canyons, riverbeds, steep hillsides, coastal bluffs," says Ciani. The phenomenon occurred in several places in the state, such as Malibu, and other places in the county, such as Carlsbad and Solana Beach.
Then in the 1970s and 1980s, the nation, led by California, became more environmentally conscious. The state legislature, noting the shaky topography and erosion-prone soils on Mount Soledad, tried to rein in development there, with some success. To be sure, some development continued: for example, the Windemere community sprang up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But the deliberate permitting process slowed down the construction of homes on undevelopable land.
Then came Golding and her city manager, Jack McGrory. Basically, they followed a Scam Diego guiding principle: the essence of white-collar fraud is contrived complexity. "The old municipal code was done away with," says Joanne Pearson, former president of the La Jolla Town Council and head of its land-use committee. "They did a Humpty Dumpty -- splintered it into various processes: procedures, rules, enforcement. It was almost impossible to cross-reference it. Frankly, the only people who have the time and money to do that are builders, architects, and developers."
She recalls telling the city council that the new code was unfathomable. Ron Roberts, then a councilmember and always a lapdog for the building industry, rose to belittle her, asking councilmembers if they didn't understand it. Those councilmembers -- known for some of San Diego's dumbest decisions -- unanimously nodded that they understood.
Soon, during the 1990s, Ridgegate, another perilously perched development, was springing up on Mount Soledad. "Ridgegate was known to be a very dangerous spot," recalls Ruth Potter, who retired in 1994 as senior regional planner at the San Diego Association of Governments. "I remember other dangerous locations. Council would approve a development even after someone testified it would be a slide area. It didn't faze them at all. The builders got pretty much what they wanted."
The council was only partly to blame. Even when specific laws should have stopped certain dangerous construction, the Development Services Department "looked the other way, got out its rubber stamps, approved it," says Ciani.
"The Development Services Department is an enterprise fund. The more development, the more money it brings back to the department," explains Pearson.
At one time, there had been checks and balances. "Now everyone works for the chief building official," says Ciani.
So the development in dangerous locations continues. "How about building in the middle of floodplains? In Mission Valley, there was building in the middle of a river," says Councilmember Donna Frye. "In Fashion Valley, they built parking structures knowing that they would flood."
Both Ciani and Pearson have fought for hold-harmless clauses for areas of La Jolla, Solana Beach, Encinitas, and other locations. People would be permitted to build what they desired, but the local government would not be held financially responsible when the worst happened. They couldn't get the politicians to go along.
Nor could they get the politicians and bureaucrats to be responsible. Asks Ciani, "Should not the agencies, mayors, councils, coastal commission, governor -- who have the responsibility to protect public health, safety, and welfare -- have the moral courage to say to someone after there has been a landslide, 'You can't build there again'?" Or shouldn't officials block a dangerous project before it gets going? These questions are apt because taxpayers wind up footing much of the bill for a disaster.
Today, homes in the Mount Soledad area are priced between $1 million and $2 million. That's cheap for La Jolla. But many potential buyers have noticed the cracks in the streets and in the homes. All told, the homes at stake may be worth $2 billion. The lawsuits will pile up. Residents will blame the City for a leaky hydrant the City wouldn't fix and buried pipes dripping water. They will cite the obligation of a municipality to protect public health, safety, and welfare. The City will claim the residents knew the risks and city workers were trying to do their jobs.