A developer’s plan to build on a canyon property in Hillcrest sparked an ever-escalating two-year dispute with the project’s immediate neighbors. As the differences have become more contentious, one or the other side has appealed to the city’s Code Enforcement department, the San Diego Police Department, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — all culminating in a civil lawsuit.
County records show Michael Donovan’s company, SDPB Holdings, LLC, which owns dozens of properties throughout the city, purchased a house at 3844 Albatross Street in 2013 — three blocks west of First Avenue, a block north of Robinson Avenue — as well as three contiguous undeveloped lots within adjacent Florence Canyon. In 2015, Donovan submitted, then withdrew, a proposal to the city requesting a vacation of public property to support construction of multiple single-family residences on the lots.
Donovan had engaged in a similar project in 2014, when he planned to develop five canyon lots near the intersection of Granada Avenue and Fir Street in South Park. That project stalled in the review process. A letter to Donovan from the city’s Development Services department listed vocal neighborhood opposition and the canyon’s status as environmentally sensitive land among the challenges Donovan would face while trying to obtain permits for the project.
The city’s Land Development Manual deems steep hillsides of greater than 25 percent grade to be considered environmentally sensitive. Because his Florence Canyon properties also included steep slopes, coupled with neighborhood opposition, Donovan would face regulatory challenges with the canyon development in Hillcrest similar to those he’d encountered in South Park.
However, the house at 3844 Albatross Street stood on level ground. SDPB Holdings entered into an agreement with Hillcrest resident Pete Samulewicz to build a new residence on this property and subsequently sell it to Samulewicz. Donovan applied for and received a demolition permit entitling him to tear down the existing home.
On January 14th, 2017, Ramona-based general contractor Hillcrest Builders sent a demolition crew, working on behalf of SDPB Holdings, to 3844 Albatross. But neighbors say that some members of the crew bypassed the house altogether. Instead, they drove equipment down into adjacent Florence Canyon and spent the next several days flattening its slopes. While some of the contractors started demolishing the house, others in the canyon took down trees, removed vegetation, and leveled a creek bed that functioned as storm drainage by funneling runoff from University Avenue above it.
“They had a permit to demolish the house,” explains Carol Emerick, who has lived across the street from the existing home for decades. “But,” she adds, “they went right down there [into the canyon] and started bulldozing.”
Another neighbor, Dawn Taggett, watched the contractors from her home, next door to the house to be demolished. She recalls, “They came down, they cut down the trees, they flattened out a large portion of the stream bed, they removed a lot of vegetation… it was a bushy hillside, but very steep.”
Emerick, Taggett, and a couple other residents of the short block of Albatross Street — which dead-ends at the canyon — had taken an interest in the proposed development in 2015. They posted fliers to call attention to a June 2015 meeting of the Uptown Planning Committee scheduled to hear Donovan’s proposal in a public forum, and showed up to voice their concerns.
In addition to wishing to protect the canyon, they expressed opposition to Donovan’s request to vacate public land. Specifically, they wished to keep a small island parklet at the end of the block, that Donovan had proposed removing to make room for a house he wanted to build. Lined with trees and palms, the parklet features a bench looking northwest into the canyon.
After voicing their opposition, Taggett and Emerick contend Donovan confronted them and other neighbors outside the meeting, threatening to sue if they persisted, and insisting he would get his way. “We came out, and he threatened each and every one of us,” Taggett remembers, “he said he was going to bulldoze everything, take down all of the trees… he said he would destroy our neighborhood.”
Upon witnessing the unpermitted grading activity this January, the Albatross neighbors reported it to the city’s Development Services Code Enforcement section for grading without a permit, and SDPB Holdings was found to be in violation. However, because the unpermitted work began the Saturday morning of the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the south canyon slope, trees, vegetation, and creek bed were razed by the time a zoning investigator inspected the site, on January 18th.
On January 27th, code enforcement issued a Civil Penalty Notice and Order to Donavan and SDPB Holdings, showing the group had violated ten development code sections in “performing grading (removal of trees, vegetation, and earth) on steep slope…without the required inspections or permits.” The notice goes on to state the work created a risk of mud slides, uncontrolled water runoff, storm-water contamination, and storm-drain pollution.
That risk statement was confirmed when an influx of winter storms flooded the newly graded canyon. “That used to be a deep streambed,” Taggett explains, “[Donovan] came through and he flattened it all out. So instead of being channeled to the storm drain, the water dispersed everywhere, and everything was underwater.”
The order levied penalties of “$1000 per violation per day,” beginning January 18th, until such time as the violations were corrected. That included obtaining a grading permit and successful completion of “all required inspections.” It issued a deadline of February 27th to accomplish this.
Hillcrest Builders subsequently fashioned a new storm channel made of wooden stakes and plastic liner to comply with the drainage complaint. However, it could not return the canyon slope, its vegetation, or trees. Instead, SDPB Holdings submitted an application for a grading permit for the affected lots, retroactively.
The city’s Development Services website shows the grading permit application was completed on April 14th — 86 days after penalties were to be assessed. However, to date, none have been. And it’s unclear whether they will be.