Fifty years ago, San Diego was a small town with miles of pearly white beaches, and vast tracts of fine pastureland. The brae citizens who lived in this isolated town traveled to Los Angeles by train to visit the big city. A river ran through Mission Valley and Balboa Park didn't have a zoo.
Those were peaceful times, without freeways, housing developments, times when a young man like S. Falck Nielson could come from Sweden with a few cents in his pocket and become a millionaire building San Diego's home and industrial plants.
Nielson Construction Company is still in business, along with the hundreds of other contractors filling 10 pages of the San Diego yellow pages. But growth in San Diego has hit a point where people notice their favorite hills being graded for tract homes and see Mission Valley more dense with hotels than Atlantic City.
The empty beaches have income the frantic, high-density communities of Mission, Ocean, and Pacific Beach. Apartments seem to squeeze into every available lot, each unit holding an average of 2.6 people. Bodies fill the beach communities and each new resident elbows his way onto his patch of sand to spread out a towel.
Only in the past five years have San Diegans begun to listen seriously to environmentalists and see the coastal area gobbled up. But it was only in vain that organized groups like the Ocean Beach Ecology Action Group and The Pacific Beach Planners tried to get action from the state legislature. Bill upon bill got either watered down or defeated. Finally, the California Coastal Alliance, a statewide environmentalist group, got $400,000 signatures to get a controlled-growth measure on the ballot, and with 55 percent of the vote last November, Proposition 20 passed. The environmentalists won! But did they?
Proposition 20 provided for a state Coastal Zone Commission and six regional commissions to supervise a "permit zone," stretching 1000 yards inland from the region's mean high tide line, and a "coastal zone" reaching five miles inland. The regional commissioners were to issue exemptions, or permits, in the "permit zone" only to builders who met strict standards of effects on public beach access, transportation, proper land and water use and population density. The commissioners were to study the "coastal zone" for a long-range plan.
Weeks before the San Diego commission's hearings, local contractors fulminated about their prospects. "We have the building permit to build a $900,000 library in Coronado, but the commission can't decide whether to give us the exemption or not," fumed Roy Greerley, the raspy-voiced bookkeeper for the Callahan Brothers Construction Company. "This law is hurting the business. We are all avoiding bidding in the coastal zone to avoid the hassle."
But the San Diego Commission, the first commission in the state to organize itself and accept applications for permits — if the first two meeting were typical — give people like Greenley little reason to fret. In the first two meetings of the local commission, on March 16 and March 23, 90 percent of the permits were approved of in a matter of hours.
The meetings themselves, held in the basement auditorium of the State Building at 1350 Front Street, have been packed with prospective builders, their contractors and their sympathizers. Each time on these last two Fridays that the argument for a project's approval was cogently presented by some contractor's lawyer, the audience broke into fits of approving applause and shouts. But some of the commission members have had second thoughts about their quick approvals. "After I came home after the first meeting I could've kicked myself. We are the rubber tamping quite a few of the permits, because we've been stampeded into acting quickly," said Dr. Elmer Keen, associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters at CSUSD, and a commissioner. "The developers have a great financial interest in obtaining these permits, and I think pressure from them has caused us to rush through the approval process."
Dr. Keen explained that dozens of permits or exemption requests are placed on the consent calendar by the staff, and are then recommended for the commission's approval.
"For about 90 percent of the permits, we have taken the advice of the staff, and for the other 10 percent, asked for further investigation."
Dr. Keen explained that any one commissioner may remove a permit request from the consent calendar, and thus, hold it back for further study. The developer must apply for a new permit, and probably will not have the issue discussed in a hearing again for an additional month.
"I personally removed nine of ten permit considerations this last Friday," said Keen. "I removed them at request of the Pacific Beach planners," Keen said these removals upset the developers, but was one way to bring controversial requests to the more concentrated attention of the Coastal Commission. "But on the whole, I'd say the hearings are going pretty miserably," Keen concluded, after the second public hearing.
The agenda consists of lists of permits, each with a number, and a short descriptive paragraph. The paragraph includes the finished project name (i.e., "Seaview Villa"), the applicant, the number of the units and buildings, the height, the parking facilities available, the site address and general location in the coastal area. This information includes only the general facts taken from a permit application, that may have up to 50 pages of data.
The co,missioners seem to agree that they could not possibly read each individual report. The descriptive paragraph attempts to present the basic information, but leaves out how the project may affect the environment, the ocean view, or the population density of the area, among other things.
The majority of voting is done by voice vote, with no records kept. However, Dan Gorham a member of the Coastal Commission staff, has been tape recording each hearing. A call to the offices of the commission on Friday, March 23, revealed the tape of the first meeting was unavailable, and no minutes from the last meeting were printed yet. It seems the secretary who took the minutes was ill for the entire week between meetings and returned only in time to attend the second hearing. Copies of both meetings' minutes would probably be available around March 30, another secretary expalined.
Even without statistics, a look at the general voting patterns indicates the group has leaned toward continued future development for the coastal zone. The commission has usually exhibited a three way voting split, however.
Three members seem to vote consistently for conservation of the coastal zone. (Any permit that involves a project directly on the coast, or that will hamper access, or ruin another resident's view of the ocean, must be heard at the public hearing. The inland projects tend to be passed en masse on the consent calendar). Dr. Elmer Keen, Jeffrey Frautschy, assistant director of Scripps Institute, and Cornelius Dutcher, local millionaire and contributor to liberal Democratic candidates, ten to vote against the quick approval of permits.
One the side that seems to vote consistently for expanded growth in the coastal zone, are San Diego County Supervisor Lou Conde, from the Third District (Conde had earlier said that he did not want to see San Diego "become a Miami Beach"), William Craven, representing the Fifth Supervisorial District of the County, and Evan Jones, president of the Ace Auto Parks Company. The voting procedures require a member with a personal interest in a permit to disqualify himself from the vote. Evan Jones has abstained from voting for four project permits in which he is personally involved.
Mayor "Mac" Mc Neely, who also heads a real estate firm in Coronado, has also tended to vote for approval of the majority of projects.
The members that have changed their votes, depending on the individual cases, are the three city councilmen. Tom Pearson, from Del Mar, Robert Frazee from Carlsbad, and Gilbert Johnson from San Diego, seemed to have voted about an equal number of times for both sides.
Chairman Malcolm Love, has also tended to vote according to the individual issue.
"We are still trying to develop a group philosophy," said Dr. Keen. "Of course we try to look at the individual projects and decide which will have little effects on the coastal zone," said Dr. Keen.
At the second hearing on March 23, the reactions consisted of less applause and more groans.
"When I took the permits off the consent calendar, and we rejected more permits than last time, the contractors weren't as happy as before, said Dr. Keen.
"They don't realize how much money this is costing our firm!" exclaimed one irate pro-construction man. When items were removed or rejected, a silence seemed to fill the auditorium for a second, before the negative verbal protests began.
Although it is impossible at this time to see the exact voting patterns, with the minutes untyped and the tape out of reach, it is relatively easy to notice the voting trend of the Regional Coastal Commission. The men are new at the game of mass decision making, and are trying to please everyone.
Yet, it appears, the contractors, often with their multimillion-dollar projects in limbo, are coming out the winners.
"We are the so-called winners of the move toward coastal conservation, and we're getting screwed!" said Roget Hedgecock, county chairman of the California Coastal Alliance, and lawyer for the Pacific Beach Planners.
He has already filed three appeals to the State Coastal Commission, to reconsider projects planned for Pacific Beach. All involve condominiums, some with four floors. Two projects will be built on Pacific Beach Drive (one at 1130 and one at 1225) and one is planned for 3747 Yosemite Street in Pacific Beach. The three are being planned by different developers.
"In the first hearing, the commission increased the population density of Pacific Beach by 2.6 percent!" said Hedgecock in his 18th floor office in the Home Tower Building downtown.
It's not so much the developers versus the conservationists, but that the commissioners don't realize that this act has strict standards and gives them the power to enforce them," Hedgecock explained. He said the groups he represents are determined to see that the Coastal Conservation Act is legally enforced.
"I'd say the first hearing March 16 was a farce, and illegal, too." He explained, to grant a permit, the commission must be sure that the developments will not have any adverse effects on the exology or environment of the area, and must be consistent with the provisions of the act as a whole.
The environmental movement is just barely managing to save the last remnants of the coast, and we thought Proposition 20 would help us.." He sighed softly and looked over the city darkening below him. "But we'll fight!"