The affordable housing crisis has been tough on community planning groups. Developers, city officials, and housing advocates blame these volunteer groups for slowing or blocking construction of the homes that everyone seems to agree the city needs. Among those taking jabs at the planning groups of late are the non-profit Circulate San Diego and Councilman Scott Sherman.
In February, Circulate, which promotes urban housing and transportation solutions, released a report that made a lot of suggestions about how the groups should change. Calling for easier access at elections to greater city staffing and training for the groups, the report has been seen as backhanded criticism of the groups.
Meanwhile, Sherman asked the city auditor to ascertain whether the groups are an impediment to new housing. This comes after his proposal last year to overhaul the groups and diminish their influence, theoretically to speed approvals for new housing.
But both Circulate and Sherman are in for a surprise. The audit which looked at 19 groups, their election and internal processes, and how housing projects fare in the groups, doesn’t support what Sherman and Circulate suggested.
“I’ll tell you preliminarily, we’re seeing a very high rate of (new construction) approvals,” said principal auditor Chris Kime at a meeting in late February. “It looks like the approval rate is really up there.”
Kime confirmed that the audit began at Sherman’s request — an audit Circulate apparently wasn’t aware of since their report recommends the groups should be audited.
A San Diego County Grand Jury investigation into planning groups seems to agree with Kime’s audit. “The Grand Jury found little evidence to support the assertion that [community planning groups] frequently make requests or demands for changes that are frivolous or unrelated to the project under review.”
What the Circulate report tries to say tactfully — they’d like to make planning groups ‘more democratic’ — is being said far more roughly in some quarters, where advocates argue the groups are an obstacle to getting new housing built. Many see Senate Bill 827, which eliminates zoning close to transit centers, as a swipe at planning groups that are resisting massive housing build-ups near transit centers — including the Balboa and Morena corridors that will soon host the SANDAG-built Mid-Coast trolley corridor from Old Town to UTC.
Though the Circulate report writers concede that what it has concluded about local groups is not from data or surveying the 43 planning groups but rather gathered anecdotally — going to see more than five or six in action, it proposes changes intended to increase the planning group’s visibility via social media and thus recruit younger and more diverse members.
“The reality is that the [community planning group] process can act as a barrier to achieving some of the City of San Diego’s housing and transportation goals. The [community planning group] process must be reformed to help [the groups] become part of the solution to advancing citywide goals, instead of being frequent opponents to progress and change,” the report states.
Circulate and other groups have begun training people to get elected to their neighborhood planning groups, hoping to shift what the advocacy groups believes are the community views to theirs or to the views of their generation who, for the most part, are absent at planning group meetings and elections.
Last week in Clairemont, Circulate San Diego policy director Maya Rosas explained to the planning group that, sure, they are democratic in nature but they could be “more democratic.” “We want more people involved — with more people the boards will represent the communities’ actual wishes.”
While Clairemont group members would like to see more outreach and involvement — just 29 people voted in the last election — they largely rejected the rest of the report.
“This is more about changing the whole nature of planning groups to suit special interests,” said planning group member Richard Jenson. “Like where you have a council member appointing people to the board — isn’t that an example of a chance for him to stack the board?”
“You have a lot of things in here that aren’t true. ‘(We) tend to oppose new construction.’ I don’t think that’s true. The planning board is the community’s voice for new housing, and we approve new housing all the time,” Jenson added. “I hate to see (the planning group) diluted and watered down because some people want more density.”
Proposals include letting council members appoint people to the groups, and having the city staff who support the groups and bring information stay to the end of the meeting.
“We purposely work to get them (city employees) heard and on their way quickly out of courtesy to them,” said David Moty, who chairs the Kensington Talmadge planning group. “We also know the city doesn’t have the funding to give us the kind of staff efforts we’d all like.”
Studies have pointed out that planning group members are almost exclusively homeowners, leaving renters with little voice. Only natural, says one planning group chairman. “I didn’t give a damn about the neighborhood until I bought a house. If something changed and made it harder to live there, I moved. Simple as that. Once I bought, I couldn’t just pick up and move, so I got involved with the neighborhood organizations.”
Clairemont is one of the 19 groups being audited — Kime explained that the auditor selected two groups from each city council district, the largest and smallest, and added La Jolla because of the amount of development underway there. The audit is expected to wrap up in May.
At the Community Planners Committee meeting where Kime spoke, he tried to explain why eight years of documents were subpoenaed from the groups. The planners committee is made up of representatives from all of the local planning groups, who volunteer their time both at the local groups and at the planners committee.
The committee members view the audit as another onerous demand from a council member who has declared he’d like to reduce their influence on what increasingly appears to be a mistaken belief that the groups are blocking development. “Planning groups are supposed to be independent from the city,” said Uptown Planners chair Leo Wilson. “The city doesn’t have that many independent voices left.”
For his part, Kime tried to assure the committee that the auditor is also independent and is not influenced by the city council.
But with the Circulate report and Sherman’s attempts to consolidate the groups on the horizon, planners say the audit seems punitive.
“This is very unfortunate timing,” said Jim Baross, chairman of the Normal Heights Community Planning Group. “If this was instead a look at best practices to share among the groups, I think we would have been eager to listen. But this looks, well, uncomfortable. Very unfortunate timing.”
Clairemont Mesa planning group member Susan Mournian summed up the planners’ view of the report and audit. “This baloney by Circulate San Diego is politically driven. Scott Sherman made a move against the recreation councils and he is moving against planning groups,” she said.