As most of the media people broke down their cameras and clapped their notebooks shut after the marshmallow issue was discussed at the June 25 O.B. Town Council meeting, the council moved on to what most in attendance agreed was the most important agenda item: a challenge to the Ocean Beach Community Plan Update.
"Ocean Beach's small-scale community character itself is in jeopardy," said council president Gretchen Newsom, opening the discussion.
"The cameras have left because it's not a sexy issue, but the community plan is on the chopping block," added Frank Gormlie, editor of the OBRag community blog. "But this is something that will affect the community for the next 30 years. It's way more important than the marshmallows."
Ocean Beach was one of the first communities in the nation to formalize a specific development plan in 1975, when opposition arose to developer proposals that locals feared would turn their neighborhood into "another Miami Beach" lined with high-rise luxury apartments. An update to that plan has been in the works since the early 2000s and is currently under consideration by the city's planning commission.
At issue is one specific component of the plan, which concerns floor-area ratio, or the maximum square footage of a building based on a percentage of the lot size.
"Over the years, the Ocean Beach Planning Board has been very concerned over variances that allow people to build something bigger than what's allowed on their lots," said Giovanni Ingolia, a member of the town council and planning board. "It's looking like half the properties in Ocean Beach could be subject to a variance. The problem with that is variances should only be used in unique circumstances. If [a larger change is warranted], then municipal code needs to be changed in order to allow for more building. What we're seeing is a patchwork of variances that we're calling a de facto zoning change to get around the law.
"So [the planning board] inserted some language, working with both the city attorney's office and city staff that would strengthen the floor-area ratio."
Some local property owners, however, are opposing the stronger language that could limit future variances. They're led by David Stebbins, who was the first of three owners on the 5000 block of West Point Loma Boulevard to get permission from the city — over the O.B. Planning Board's objection — to demolish a 1950s-era bungalow-style duplex and replace it with a three-story single-family residence.
Gormlie's website recently ran an article taking issue with temporarily appointed city councilman Ed Harris, who granted Stebbins a private meeting to discuss the plan update on the advice of city attorney Jan Goldsmith's office; this occurred before Harris canceled a similar meeting with O.B. community leaders. A Harris staffer present at the June 25 meeting insisted that Harris was still interested in hearing from the community but said the appropriate venue to do so would be through submitting public comments before the San Diego City Council.
"Everyone's had a chance to speak on this many, many times," added boardmember Nate Bazydlo. "If they want to change what we, as a community, want, there's a way to go about it. Granting repeated variances to individuals is not the way. That's how you say, 'I completely don't respect the community, and we're going to go around you guys.' That's why this is a big issue."
Petitions circulating around Ocean Beach have garnered about 1700 signatures so far in support of the plan, with an online version adding another 300.
Community activists hope to gather 3000 or more signatures to present to the city council when the plan is brought before them for consideration in a Monday-afternoon session. Locals are gearing up to attend the hearing en masse to submit comments in support of the plan update, including the floor-area-ratio language. Many of them will wear blue “Keep the OBecian attitude" T-shirts that several boardmembers sported at the meeting and which are being distributed around the community.