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Just how is it that a major development project at odds with the City's General Plan can slip through the cracks at City Hall?

One way is if those cracks are tailor-made by a boss willing to open and close the breach as he sees fit.

This appears to be the case with Saint John Garabed Church's proposal to build a large religious complex near environmentally sensitive lands and a residential neighborhood in Rancho Del Mar.

Documents obtained through a public records request shows former Director of Development Services Kelly Broughton ordered City planners to change or delete negative comments on cycle reports and even threatened employees if they refused to step in line.

The emails show in his final days before leaving the City for a similar post in Chula Vista, Broughton ran the department with an iron fist, preferring that planners bite their tongues rather than voice their concerns.

At issue was the proposal from Saint John Garabed Armenian Church to build a 450-seat church,18,090 square-foot banquet hall, an 11,000 square-foot cultural and educational building, and a 13,840 square-foot recreational building on 13.37-acres near the mouth of the Gonzalez Canyon.

In cycle reports composed during the permitting process, planners felt the facility would have a "dominating appearance," and dwarf the neighborhood and surrounding area. They found improper setbacks, easements, and questioned the overall design and configuration.

Broughton, however, rejected their concerns.

On January 16, he ordered Deputy Director of Permit Issuance and Code Enforcement Robert Vacchi to draft a memo objecting, in part, to findings that the development would adversely affect the General Plan, [North City Future Urbanizing Area Framework Plan], and the San Dieguito River Park Concept Plan.

"This comment is at best premature and more likely incorrect given the site constraints and parameters of the project," read Vacchi's memo. "Encroachment into the open space is minimal, reasonable, and necessary to fulfill the cultural and operational requirements of the church. The comment should be cleared or revised with more detailed analysis and specificity."

Less than three weeks later, Cecilia Gallardo head of the Advanced Planning and Engineering division, came to the planners defense, calling Vacchi's memo "flawed" and lacking "supporting information."

"The memo ignores a function of staff to provide a thorough, accurate assessment of conformance with plans and regulations and 'the best method to comply' based upon professional judgement," wrote Gallardo.

"While the project's lack of compliance with policies in the General Plan, [the North City Future Urbanizing Area Framework Plan], and the San Dieguito River Park Concept Plans is well documented in the staff review, the leap to compliance in the memo is not."

Gallardo's message carried little weight and planners assigned to Saint John Garabed were left to defend themselves.

"These changes truly benefit the applicant without their justification and responses to us and deprive the community of our legitimate neutral responses," reads a February 21 email from Senior Planner Terri Bumgardner to staffers from councilmember Sherri Lightner's Office.

The following day, Bumgardner sent an email to Broughton justifying her and her fellow planner, Joe Stanco's concerns about the project.

"We feel our comments are reasonable and consistent with our reviews we have done on other projects in the area."

Again the comments were ignored. Broughton scheduled meetings with the two planners as a way to force their hand.

"Now we are being called to the principal's office on Wednesday I am sure to reprimand us. We could use the Mayor's intervention now," read a follow-up email from Bumgardner.

On March 8, project manager John Fisher sent planner Stanco another message, once again urging him to tone down his concerns.

"I believe you met with Kelly to discuss this project and the comments of your review on March 6, 2013. I believe the results of that meeting are you are to revise your comments. I have reopened and adjusted your cycle to allow you to modify your comments to be in agreement with the conclusions of your meeting."

Bumgardner then asked that the project be assigned to another person.

Broughton fired back.

"I did not hear any independent analysis provided by you or your staff when we met nor did I see that analysis or justification contained in your staff comments. So, in conclusion, if you would like me to accept your email as a refusal to follow the direction provided to you and your staff, namely to apply the regualtions in a consistent and appropriate manner, please let me know," wrote Broughton on March 8.

In response, Bumgardner told Lightner's staffer that the email was "more threatening" than any previous emails and that she did "not know what to do next."

Broughton has since left the City.

On July 12, a public notice on Saint John Garabed was posted on the City's website. The notice mentioned that the project posed significant environmental impacts.

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Comments

Diogenes July 23, 2013 @ 9:43 a.m.

DSD was created specifically to filter public comments, Bob Filner was aware of this. That's why he must go, Sexual harassment charges may well be justified. Bur here is the main reason the developers control the oress and DSD.

Always follow the money in San Diego and your investigation will lead you to the truth,

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FatCatSegat July 23, 2013 @ 9:56 a.m.

Thats a HELL of a foundation for a church to be built on. Look up people!

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jelula July 23, 2013 @ 6:13 p.m.

Diogenes - you're completely off base in pointing at the current mayor on this. Development Services (DSD) has existed for years; it's not a new department. However, a couple of years ago, Jerry Sanders basically eliminated the Planning Dept. and put the few remaining planners under the director of DSD. This put the Director of DSD in a perfect position to censor staff comments and, with an EIR, manipulate conclusions in ways that would benefit the proposed development or building project.

The Cycle Reports, based on details of the development plan submitted by the proposer of the plan, are written by staff members in each City department that has a role in elements of a project; they would have been in process well before Filner was elected Mayor. Mayor Filner, once he focused on reconstituting a real Planning Dept., let Broughton go, possibly because he learned of this manipulation to slip a non-conforming plan through the system. Keep in mind, it was this same DSD Director who cooperated with Sunroad on at least two (that we know of) projects that also were not allowable, undoubtedly with the encouragement or at the direction of Jerry Sanders.

The details in this story are much like other projects that DSD, in recent years and with the support of Sanders, tried to slip through despite major conflicts with the San Diego General Plan, the applicable Community Plan and numerous City ordinances. The 1985 Managed Growth Initiative, a citizens' initiative approved by 56+% of voters, requires that any development planned in the Future Urbanizing Area be submitted to voters. This ensures that each project is carefully planned in detail, including ensuring that the cumulative impacts from multiple projects do not adversely affect neighboring communities and public open space, and ensuring that public facilities (fire stations, libraries, schools, parks....) are provided within the development.

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Dorian Hargrove July 23, 2013 @ 7:53 p.m.

Thanks, Jelula. Wish we could have talked before I posted this. --dH

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jelula July 23, 2013 @ 6:19 p.m.

I was particularly taken aback by the statement in a memo from a DSD Deputy Director (under orders from the Director of DSD) that "Encroachment into the open space is minimal, reasonable, and necessary to fulfill the cultural and operational requirements of the church....". Since when did we, the public, offer to turn public open space over to a private development in order to assist them in fulfilling their requirements?!

Furthermore, this open space and - if I read this correctly - at least part of the property in question - is in the Future Urbanizing Area, therefore must go before the voters before it can receive final approval. This project would be unlikely to achieve that approval by voters given the quoted staff comments that were censored, especially the stated expectation that it would be okay to encroach into public open space.

A point of information: Since voter approval of the Managed Growth Initiative in 1985, 10 projects have come to the ballot. Of these, 7 were approved, the most recent in 2010.

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Dorian Hargrove July 23, 2013 @ 7:57 p.m.

Now, you're just making me look bad! Feel free to contact me anytime, my email address is dorianhargrove@gmail.com

Thanks!-dH

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