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San Diego planning groups wary of reforms

Mission Beach, Encanto volunteers worry about membership rules, developer oversight

"The elimination of fee-exempt appeals will effectively silence the groups."
"The elimination of fee-exempt appeals will effectively silence the groups."

A series of reforms to community planning groups the San Diego City Council will make on Tuesday could be good for housing and diversity, bringing more balance to decisions about what gets built where.

But some say the proposal, if not amended, will silence less affluent neighborhoods. The city's 42 citizen planning groups provide information and opinions on new development projects and land use decisions, and their recommendations are a key part of the planning process.

They will still play that role, but the ability to quash projects in the midst of a shortage of affordable housing will be dimmed, some say. A rotation of new voices will refresh "what has become a stale and often ignored process," one comment reads.

The amendments have been in the works since a 2018 county grand jury report and city audit found planning groups to be unprofessional and lacking transparency, problems made worse by the city’s limited oversight.

Under the reform effort led by councilmember Joe LaCava, planning groups will become independent advisory bodies to the city, taking on their own recordkeeping, websites and other tasks long handled by city staff.

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The update retains the 500 community volunteers who now serve and secures the autonomy of the groups to run their own annual elections to elect new voting members.

There will be a requirement to consider designating seats for renters, stakeholders and business representatives to ensure voting members reflect the broader community.

And each group will now have to collect demographic data of existing and new voting members and the community to submit to the city in its annual report.

Throughout the review process leading up to Tuesday's meeting, several community planning groups have voiced opposition, from financial burdens to allowing developers to avoid presenting their plans to the groups if they choose not to involve them in the review.

Many of their concerns remain unresolved, said a letter from Debbie Watkins, chair of the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board.

Staff documents state that the “city will endeavor to notify [community planning groups] of discretionary permits or actions located within their area.” But Watkins said it doesn't say what can be done if a planning group asks a developer to present their plans at a meeting and the developer declines.

Derryl Williams, chair of Groundwork San Diego - Chollas Creek Board of Directors, asked the city to postpone the item. Groundwork, a non-profit based in Encanto, works with planning groups in the Chollas Creek Watershed, where they have been restoring the creek, adding trails and other community features used by neighbors.

He criticized the imposition of a two-year gap before termed-out members can seek election, which makes it harder to recruit members; dropping the requirement that individuals seeking election attend three previous meetings - a minimum threshold to discourage favoring special interests, he said; and above all, taking away fee-free appeals.

Until now, the typical $1,000 appeal fee has always been waived for appeals filed by planning groups.

"The elimination of fee-exempt appeals for CPGs will effectively silence the groups," especially in low income communities, Williams said, since planning groups aren't allowed to charge fees to fund appeals or collect membership fees for operating expenses.

The city has pledged ongoing support, such as a $500 stipend to each planning group in fiscal year 2023. In addition, meeting space will be available without charge at city facilities, on a case-by-case basis, and the city will post the groups' agendas on their website.

Williams said it's not nearly enough to fund the needed data management systems, online meeting and translation services and website support.

"To continue improvements in our communities of concern, the [groups] need the city's support, rather than being penalized."

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"The elimination of fee-exempt appeals will effectively silence the groups."
"The elimination of fee-exempt appeals will effectively silence the groups."

A series of reforms to community planning groups the San Diego City Council will make on Tuesday could be good for housing and diversity, bringing more balance to decisions about what gets built where.

But some say the proposal, if not amended, will silence less affluent neighborhoods. The city's 42 citizen planning groups provide information and opinions on new development projects and land use decisions, and their recommendations are a key part of the planning process.

They will still play that role, but the ability to quash projects in the midst of a shortage of affordable housing will be dimmed, some say. A rotation of new voices will refresh "what has become a stale and often ignored process," one comment reads.

The amendments have been in the works since a 2018 county grand jury report and city audit found planning groups to be unprofessional and lacking transparency, problems made worse by the city’s limited oversight.

Under the reform effort led by councilmember Joe LaCava, planning groups will become independent advisory bodies to the city, taking on their own recordkeeping, websites and other tasks long handled by city staff.

Sponsored
Sponsored

The update retains the 500 community volunteers who now serve and secures the autonomy of the groups to run their own annual elections to elect new voting members.

There will be a requirement to consider designating seats for renters, stakeholders and business representatives to ensure voting members reflect the broader community.

And each group will now have to collect demographic data of existing and new voting members and the community to submit to the city in its annual report.

Throughout the review process leading up to Tuesday's meeting, several community planning groups have voiced opposition, from financial burdens to allowing developers to avoid presenting their plans to the groups if they choose not to involve them in the review.

Many of their concerns remain unresolved, said a letter from Debbie Watkins, chair of the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board.

Staff documents state that the “city will endeavor to notify [community planning groups] of discretionary permits or actions located within their area.” But Watkins said it doesn't say what can be done if a planning group asks a developer to present their plans at a meeting and the developer declines.

Derryl Williams, chair of Groundwork San Diego - Chollas Creek Board of Directors, asked the city to postpone the item. Groundwork, a non-profit based in Encanto, works with planning groups in the Chollas Creek Watershed, where they have been restoring the creek, adding trails and other community features used by neighbors.

He criticized the imposition of a two-year gap before termed-out members can seek election, which makes it harder to recruit members; dropping the requirement that individuals seeking election attend three previous meetings - a minimum threshold to discourage favoring special interests, he said; and above all, taking away fee-free appeals.

Until now, the typical $1,000 appeal fee has always been waived for appeals filed by planning groups.

"The elimination of fee-exempt appeals for CPGs will effectively silence the groups," especially in low income communities, Williams said, since planning groups aren't allowed to charge fees to fund appeals or collect membership fees for operating expenses.

The city has pledged ongoing support, such as a $500 stipend to each planning group in fiscal year 2023. In addition, meeting space will be available without charge at city facilities, on a case-by-case basis, and the city will post the groups' agendas on their website.

Williams said it's not nearly enough to fund the needed data management systems, online meeting and translation services and website support.

"To continue improvements in our communities of concern, the [groups] need the city's support, rather than being penalized."

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