• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— On January 23 of this year, city land czar James Waring wrote a letter to Jeff R. Brown, aviation safety officer of the California Department of Transportation in Sacramento. In the City of San Diego government, there is no tradeoff between safety and money, claimed Waring. The only concern is safety. There is no one in City government who "does not take the issue of safety very seriously," boasted Waring. "The mayor consistently states that the primary function of City government is public safety.... [I]ssues of lives and safety are not issues to be dealt with in terms of money." Oh? Let's look into that assertion.

Waring was talking about the Centrum 1 building being constructed by Sunroad Enterprises. The Federal Aviation Administration told Sunroad in mid-2006 that anything higher than 160 feet was an aviation hazard. The state Department of Transportation agreed. But with its 190-foot building, Sunroad defies both, saying it has permission to go ahead from the City's development bureaucracy.

Under the California Public Records Act, the Reader received a collection of the City's internal and external communications as the Sunroad crisis was unfolding. These documents show that contrary to what Waring claimed on January 23, he was concerned about and at times obsessed with money: what would abandonment of the project cost the City and/or Sunroad? Would the City have financial liability? Weren't the safety risks minimal, and weren't they outweighed by other considerations, such as real estate development?

On December 12 of last year, Waring wrote to an acquaintance, "What do we do? Is 20 feet on this one building critical?" One option might be to demolish the building in whole or in part. "Is the City liable for anything? I don't think so, but we'll still spend at least hundreds of thousands of dollars defending the case. I assume we can use dollars from airports [budgets]," but that would reduce the City's airport capital improvement program, complained Waring.

He pondered whether safety issues were really so important. On that same day in December, Waring wrote another San Diegan: "Do you really think it is necessary to tear down a $45,000,000 building because of the 17 feet? ... We are an interesting country. Collectively and individually we accept many risks in life and public policy. Yet in some areas we impose huge restrictions to protect against a very marginal risk." City employees overseeing airports had explained to him how landing patterns could be changed so that Sunroad wouldn't have to cut its building down to 160 feet. "The more I learn, the lower the event probability appears." Then he hedged, "Of course, the other side is that any accident would involve human life regardless of that probability."

Then Waring brought up what was really on his mind: land use, or real estate policies. "I do believe the reason the FAA is under increasing pressure to close airports all over America is because of issues and land use conflicts similar to this one.... I believe aviation function and safety can be preserved without the strait jacket the FAA imposes on local jurisdictions." The airport regulatory agency "will adapt to reasonable restrictions on use of land and money or it will in the coming decades see more and more airports closed." Land and money were critical, quoth he. "The cost of stopping [the Sunroad project] is extensive." The City had decided to permit Sunroad to complete the building's interior. "It is their money they are risking by finishing the interior work," said Waring.

In late January of this year, representatives of the Development Services Department were to appear on a KPBS radio show. Waring looked over his employees' preparation sheets. "Remember, we do not believe the City has liability," he wrote emphatically.

Hmmm. Waring had told the California Department of Transportation on January 23 that "issues of lives and safety are not issues to be dealt with in terms of money."

On November 19, in still another letter, Waring opined that "overly restrictive FAA rules put unnecessary pressure on local jurisdictions and aviation resources.... Aviation safety and mission can coexist in many cases with general fund land uses." Then Waring returned to a monetary topic dear to his heart: economic development. "The greater question is to what extent should an urbanizing community restrict economic development...to protect against a very low probability hazard? I'm not a pilot, but I have to guess that pilots are at much greater risk from our local mountains or from mechanical issues than they are at risk of hitting a building like the Sunroad one.... In a general sense, what economic opportunity loss should a city accept in support of an airport?" So, unlike what he asserted on January 23, public safety issues are definitely to be dealt with in terms of money, Waring said repeatedly.

In a letter to two city employees on December 4, Waring mused that he didn't know "whether the building is a real risk or whether this is much ado about nothing. Regardless, our job for the City of San Diego is to minimize any claims against the City, including trying to avoid a lawsuit against the City." Why not deter air accidents, rather than deter financial claims?

One San Diegan, responding to Waring's doubts that low risk was worth $45 million, put it straight to him: "You see $45,000,000 and low risk. The FAA, Caltrans, and a bunch of airport users see yet another example of 'bend the rules to suit developers and city planners.' "

Waring's underlings were equally obsessed with the financial aspects of any attempt to make Sunroad comply with federal and state air safety laws. In October, the city attorney asked the City's Development Services Department to issue a stop-work order. "It will be very expensive to stop work," pointed out one employee in a note to Waring and Marcela Escobar-Eck, head of Development Services.

"We are getting lots of pressure from Sunroad," complained another employee on October 12.

On December 4, Karen Hutchens, who does flackery for Sunroad, wrote to Fred Sainz, who does the same for the mayor. Hutchens wanted "to provide the mayor's office a thorough briefing on the issue."

On December 12, Waring exchanged ever-so-friendly e-mails with Tom Story, the longtime overseer of development activities for the City who went to Sunroad in late 2005 and is now being charged with influence-peddling by the city attorney's office. Waring was thinking of setting up a phone conference with the FAA. Story wanted to be in on the call. Story volunteered to have Sunroad's Washington lobbyist set up the phone colloquy.

Sunroad has two even higher buildings on the drawing boards. Both of these, too, break FAA rules. On December 12, Waring offered Story gratuitous advice. "For what it is worth, I suggest you are making a tactical error in not solving building 1 and then and only then dealing with 2 and 3," offered Waring. Such chumminess.

While this was going on, Waring had his employees prepare a timeline. It shows that on June 19 of last year, the City learned that the FAA had concerns about the height of Centrum 1. The next day, the federal administration told Sunroad that the building would be officially classified as a hazard. Two days later, a Sunroad attorney said that the federal administration had no authority to control local land use. But the next day, June 23, Sunroad said it would hold construction to 160 feet, as the federal government desired. On June 29, Sunroad got permission from the federal agency to construct the 160-foot building.

One month later, Sunroad told the City that it would build to 180 feet (now 190 feet). On January 23, Waring told the California Department of Transportation that "we have never received a satisfactory answer" why Sunroad agreed to build to 160 feet "and then proceeded to 180 feet."

The city attorney is trying to get an answer to that question in court. He is catching flak from the rest of city government. Could it have something to do with money?

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader