San Diego What is it about Sunroad Enterprises and regional airports? During the same period in which certain City planners were plotting to use Sunroad's defiance of federal and state air safety laws as a pretext to close down Montgomery Field and open it to real estate development, a similar scheme was cooking for Brown Field in Otay Mesa. Sunroad and three other developers -- McMillin, Pardee, and Integral Partners -- were paying consultants to rewrite the Otay Mesa community plan so they could turn industrial parcels they had bought for a song into residential parcels that would turn a fat profit. And during this period when they were paying for work that should have been done by the City and the local community, these developers were preparing for the permitting process on residential projects in the area.
After City Attorney Michael Aguirre inquired about the malodorous arrangement, City real estate czar James Waring said the City would begin steering and paying for the community plan, instead of the developers. Waring didn't call the project off, though. In a letter dated June 29, he said that completing the community plan "is a high priority for the Mayor" and should be effectuated by year-end.
When some City officials permitted Sunroad to flip the middle digit to federal and state governments at Montgomery Field, it was a case of one government body shielding a law-defying developer from other government bodies. What's been going on in Otay Mesa has been worse: it has been a case of private developers essentially taking over the planning function of government and the citizenry. It's additional graphic proof that developers run City Hall.
The developer group is the Otay Mesa Coalition. It hired consultants called the Otay Mesa Working Group to alter the community plan so the developers could add 5500 residential units. I have gone over three years of the agendas, reports, and meeting notes of this group, which met at least monthly in the offices of architect/civic powerhouse Mark Steele. Among the attendees and eager participants were Theresa Millette and Mary Wright of the City's Planning Department. Also there was Tom Story, former head of land use at the City, who was hired by Sunroad in late 2005 and was charged with lobbying former employees before waiting the required time. Among consultants were airport lawyers Chevalier, Allen & Lichman, whom Sunroad hired as it reached the decision to construct its building near Montgomery Field despite warnings of the Federal Aviation Administration and the California Department of Transportation.
In essence, the Otay Mesa Coalition seized the planning process so it could build homes on land north and south of State Route 905. It is not desirable to build homes so close to an expressway, particularly one that will have heavy traffic from high-polluting trucks. That's why the Otay Mesa community plan of 1981 had the area zoned industrial/commercial. At a meeting September 30 of 2005, one working group attendee denounced "antiquated thinking in...preserving industrial lands."
On February 15 of last year, the working group declared that the 1981 community plan was "out of date. Assumptions regarding industrial uses and land absorptions were incorrect...There is a surplus of industrial land and a scarcity of residential land." The answer was the San Diego sacred cow, City of Villages, or so-called smart growth -- essentially, densification, or shoehorning as many people as possible into a space, even though the infrastructure can't support the population. The working group's stated mission: "provide more housing."
To do that, the consultants considered a raid on Brown Field. On August 24 of 2005, they reflected on comments received from the public at an open house the week before. "The strength and consistency of the comments about making better use of Brown Field through making it smaller or eliminating it was surprising," noted the committee. On August 14 of last year, the group reported that an individual who owned property at both ends of the runway "is in the process of forming a Brown Field coalition to discuss ideas/solutions for Brown Field with the [Federal Aviation Administration] and the City." On May 12 of this year, a scribe wrote that "the Mayor's office wants to maintain flexibility for using Brown Field in the future. Not likely to support shortening the runway or designating site specific study areas without justification from detailed study of airport."
Mayor Jerry Sanders may have been aware that in October of last year, 14 conservation groups won a major victory in federal court that protects vernal pools on Brown Field. "The decision we got on the lawsuit would have barred them from proceeding with any consideration of [shortening the field]," or at least made it very difficult, says David Hogan, conservation manager of the San Diego office of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Says Gerald Blank, attorney for the Community Airfields Association of San Diego, "One of the group's proposals was to shorten Brown Field's longest and most useful runway -- make it more feasible to put housing in there." He believes Waring would like to expropriate Montgomery for developers and might have an eye on Brown, too.
"Corporate jets are ideal for Brown," says Rick Beach, president of the association, who believes the airfield could generate business and jobs for the county.
In its meetings, the working group was regularly updating progress on its multiple missions: the community plan; water; sewer; schools; parks; the environmental impact report; transportation studies of highways and streets; drainage; public facilities financing; community outreach programs to be run by the City; and, of course, Brown Field. The consultants talked with Southwestern Community College about setting up a site at Otay Mesa, close to a new high school.
In short, the rezoning of industrial land to residential land that would line the pockets of the four developers was planned to a gnat's eyelash. Make it a rat's eyelash. The Otay Mesa adventure "is a conflict of interest," says Councilmember Donna Frye. "It gets more and more interesting as developers look for parcels of land. It is a feeding frenzy to see who can get the land at a cheaper price. Once you get it upzoned, you have made a fortune. You don't even have to do development. Many of these developers are using taxpayers' money not only to get very rich, but to get filthy rich."
Lori Saldaña, who represents the 76th Assembly District, has been hearing from constituents that the developers and their paid consultants were improperly noticing meetings and not putting items on their agendas in an understandable fashion. "I love this public/private designation," she says. "Too often the public disappears from that equation. It's like a cabal -- a closed club atmosphere. And the exodus of people leaving public sector jobs to join [the cabal] is interesting."