It reads like a page out of a comic book: an underground team of developers and building-industry professionals whose sole mission is to change land-use policies, in some cases easing development regulations.
But this isn’t a work of fiction; it occurs once a month at City Hall when a group of developers, lobbyists, and architects meet to reshape San Diego’s land-development code. Their suggestions appear on the front page of staff reports to council committees and planning-commission dockets.
The Code Monitoring Team, established in 1998, is an 18-person team responsible for finding holes in San Diego’s code and offering ideas on how to fill them.
But over the years, the team has become policy-driven, concerned more with crafting ordinances than drafting fixes to the current code.
Some residents are beginning to voice concerns about what they feel is an autonomous and largely unregulated group.
Unlike any other city committees, subcommittees, or even community-planning groups, the Code Monitoring Team is not required to follow even the most basic provisions from the Brown Act or other public meeting laws, such as posting agendas or documenting votes at meetings. Members are not required to file economic interest disclosures, as is the case with volunteer planners and city officials.
A spokesperson for interim mayor Todd Gloria confirms the group’s autonomy and justifies its composition and lack of bylaws by pointing out that it’s “not a legislative body and was not created by a legislative body” and therefore is not subject to any of the state’s open meeting laws.
The freedom has allowed the group to become a quasi-lobbying body, which weighs in on a variety of crucial planning issues, such as food-truck regulations and height limits for San Diego’s oldest and most established communities.
“Most of the public is not even aware there exists such a group,” says former deputy planning director for the City of San Diego and current environmental and planning consultant, Dave Potter.
“Based on my knowledge of the origin, composition, and operating procedures of the Code Monitoring Team, the team should not be involved in making recommendations on policy issues.”
When formed, the team was meant to represent a variety of community interests, from knowledgeable building-industry professionals to historical resource experts to community planners and environmental advocacy groups.
However, the current roster is anything but diverse. Of the 18 designated positions on the board, 3 are vacant. Developers, architects, and even land-use lobbyists whose job is to persuade city officials to adopt a more lax permitting process, dominate the roster. There is only one community planner.
And while locating agendas for meetings proves to be a difficult task, their recommendations on important community issues are not hard to find. That was evident on August 14 when only eight team members showed to provide recommendations on whether to adopt a permanent height ordinance for Uptown communities of Hillcrest, Mission Hills, and Bankers Hill.
The push for height limitations in Uptown is no small issue. The fight to keep building heights down began in 2007, shortly after the city’s planning department received a proposal for two residential towers, one a 19-story and the other a 17-story, to be built at the corner of University and Third Avenue in the heart of Hillcrest.
Despite being victorious in defeating the project, residents were unable to convince the city council to pass a permanent height ordinance. The best they could do was get a temporary moratorium on buildings above 65 feet in selected areas.
Four years later, residents are still lobbying the council to adopt a permanent ordinance. Dave Potter is one of those outspoken advocates. He was encouraged to find that a new ordinance was in the works with city staff fully behind the effort. But Potter soon learned that not everyone was on board.
At their sparsely attended August 14 meeting, the Code Monitoring Team voted against the permanent ordinance. Those present included John Ziebarth from the American Institute of Architecture, John Leppert; from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Steve Silverman; Council of Design Professionals, Sean Cardenas; former city planner and current project manager for Tierra Environmental Services, attorney Rebecca Michael; Molly Kirkland, director of public affairs for the San Diego County Apartment Association; Marcela Escobar-Eck, former director of San Diego’s Development Services Department; current land-use lobbyist Joan Dahlin from the League of Women Voters; and Guy Preuss, the sole community planner on the team.
According to notes from that meeting, seven of the eight members present went against staff’s recommendations and suggested a different tact; to do away with any height limitations and allow council or planning commissioners to decide if the project, regardless of height, should be built. Only one person voted against the motion — Guy Preuss, the sole community planner.
Their recommendation appeared on the front page of a staff report to the Land Use and Housing Committee, directly underneath the staff’s recommendation, above the recommendation from Uptown’s planning group.
Frustrated with the process, Potter requested that the mayor’s office reevaluate the Code Monitoring Team’s responsibilities and the appointment process and adopt a strict set of bylaws detailing their mission. “Transparency is seriously lacking for this group,” Potter complained.
He is not alone.
Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planning Committee, a land-use consultant, and an expert on the local planning process, also has concerns about the autonomy of the Code Monitoring Team and agrees that the city should hold the team to the same standards and requirements as any other committee.
“Without having bylaws and a set time for reconfirmation by the council and mayor, the team may drift from their mission. And, instead of the group focusing on monitoring the code, it has sometimes veered off into judging policy issues.”
La Cava continues, “The mayor and council should work together to compose the group of the right members. And, the city attorney should draft bylaws and ensure Brown Act compliance. Over the past several years, most of the city’s advisory committees have been brought up to today’s expectations of how they should operate. It is time to relook at the Code Monitoring Team. They provide a valuable service, let’s get the right process documented to inspire confidence by the public and the decision-makers.”