People of that once-perfect peninsula, Point Loma, fear that a perfect storm is gathering. Governments at the federal, state, county, and local levels are taking actions that threaten to increase the noise, traffic, pollution, population, and housing density, while worsening neighborhood character, infrastructure, services, aesthetics, and property values. In some respects, Point Loma could be the victim of social engineering made antisocial by quick-buck artists and their bureaucrat servants.
The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority plans to expand Lindbergh Field, adding boarding gates and parking facilities, and perhaps a new runway and terminal. Air and ground traffic will escalate sharply -- generating more noise and road rage. The City of San Diego's Liberty Station giveaway has already added 350 homes, High Tech High, shops, offices, and restaurants that jam up Rosecrans Street and surrounding areas. The Rock Church at Liberty Station, which opened August 26, has 8000 worshippers attending five Sunday services and another six for young people. Plans for the 650-room Nickelodeon resort hotel at Liberty Station, replete with water park (which a resident calls "butt-ugly"), will tangle traffic even more.
And beginning next year, the Navy will transfer 1100 personnel and 1500 family members to Naval Base Point Loma at the end of Rosecrans. There are already 18,000 uniformed and civilian personnel at the facility.
This year, the real estate industry threw money at the Peninsula Community Planning Board election, defeating four activist incumbents and snatching a pro-development majority. The City's Development Services Department is distorting state affordable-housing laws to help developers' densification efforts, and now it has the planning board majority cheering such moves.
"In 20 years, Point Loma could look like Miami or downtown San Diego, with empty condos blocking the views," says Cynthia Conger, one of the activists defeated in the last election. More frequent airplane takeoffs, greater noise, and traffic that is already "horrible" will drive out residents, she believes. The City, unless it is thwarted, will twist laws to achieve more densification and might be able to break the 30-foot height limit. Where topography permits, high-rise condos could go up and be sold to speculators and out-of-towners who spend little time or money locally.
"Developers want to clean out those one stories along Rosecrans near Nimitz. They're on the hit list," says John McNab, an activist who lives in Golden Hill but spent more time than anybody fighting the McMillin Companies' depredations at Liberty Station. "The City will do everything possible to make things as dense as they can be."
Judy White knows a developer who wanted to put four units on a property. "The City wanted her to densify and build eight units. She had to jump through hoops to build four and keep the integrity of the neighborhood," says White.
"Traffic is out of hand, but the City is focused on densification," says Geoff Page, vice chairman of the community planning board. "The Development Services Department is violating just about everything in the muni code to allow people to squeeze in more folks." He cites illegal garage remodels, construction of guest quarters, and other attempts to create housing that are "eliminating parking, taxing the infrastructure."
For several years, developers who promised to make a certain percentage of the units in their projects affordable were able to cut corners on some regulations, using the concept of so-called affordable housing density bonuses. But in 2005 and 2006, the state passed laws broadening the ability of developers to get around rules on such things as setbacks and parking requirements. San Diego is misinterpreting those state mandates, says Katheryn Rhodes, an engineer and Point Loma resident.
The bureaucracy of the Development Services Department, through its "streamlining" and "re-engineering" initiatives, is granting ministerial reviews of projects and claiming falsely that such bureaucratic reviews are mandated by state law because of the affordable housing bonus incentives. A ministerial review bypasses city council and the voters. "A clerk in Development Services makes neighborhood-changing decisions," and if a developer's economic well-being is at stake, it gets the nod, says Rhodes. "They are using a program to help the poor as an opportunity to delete development regulations and take away power from the city council and the citizens." In this process, developers can dodge mandates of the California Environmental Quality Act, including those regarding natural resources, air quality, police and fire services, sewer capacity, human health, density, schools, parks, transportation, and water conservation.
"It's a power grab of city council prerogatives by the mayor," says Rhodes. And San Diego has reinterpreted the law to give developers as much incentive to build affordable homes for moderate-income families as for the truly poor.
Citizens, with the help of City Attorney Mike Aguirre, have been fighting this all year. For now, the 30-foot height limit appears safe, but groups such as the mayor's handpicked establishment majority on the Charter Review Committee, the construction industry, and the Union-Tribune are trying desperately to get Aguirre out of office so developers can continue to run city hall. Within weeks, the council will vote for a new ordinance on the affordable housing density bonus. "If we just follow state law, that would be a tremendous victory," says Rhodes.
"Sanders is going for ministerial decisions," says Councilmember Donna Frye. " 'Streamlining' is a code word for keeping people away." She adds, "Where this mess began was the state legislature -- the state telling municipalities, cities, counties how to handle land-use decisions. Then we overreached" on what the state actually said.
Some things, such as flight frequency, noise, and traffic, are hopeless, because the City intends to "max out Lindbergh Field," says Lance Murphy, an aerospace engineer. A suggested transit system to operate out of the old General Dynamics property on Pacific Highway won't provide much help because airport authorities haven't coordinated it with other county transit systems, he says.
The safety issue is key -- and, ironically, could help Point Loma stave off the densification efforts. "Lindbergh is the second-busiest single runway in the world," says Murphy. The busiest, Gatwick Airport in Great Britain, doesn't have the fog, wind, and environmental problems of Lindbergh. "Pilots are stressed, have to be on their toes; it's tough to land" at Lindbergh, says Murphy. "The statistics and probability say there will be a failure; at some point we will have a crisis."
The safety picture is so grim that Point Lomans could cogently argue that a safety zone should project from Lindbergh to the Pacific Ocean. (Murphy won't say that himself.) Someone could reasonably argue that there should be no development, densification, or high-rises in that entire area.
Airport authorities will come up with a land-use plan. Point Loma residents "should become involved. There will be public outreach to help them get involved," says Murphy. Danger could be Point Loma's high card.
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