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Various Authors 4:09 p.m., May 27
Just how is it that a major development project at odds with the City's General Plan can slip through the cracks at City Hall?
One way is if those cracks are tailor-made by a boss willing to open and close the breach as he sees fit.
This appears to be the case with Saint John Garabed Church's proposal to build a large religious complex near environmentally sensitive lands and a residential neighborhood in Rancho Del Mar.
Documents obtained through a public records request shows former Director of Development Services Kelly Broughton ordered City planners to change or delete negative comments on cycle reports and even threatened employees if they refused to step in line.
The emails show in his final days before leaving the City for a similar post in Chula Vista, Broughton ran the department with an iron fist, preferring that planners bite their tongues rather than voice their concerns.
At issue was the proposal from Saint John Garabed Armenian Church to build a 450-seat church,18,090 square-foot banquet hall, an 11,000 square-foot cultural and educational building, and a 13,840 square-foot recreational building on 13.37-acres near the mouth of the Gonzalez Canyon.
In cycle reports composed during the permitting process, planners felt the facility would have a "dominating appearance," and dwarf the neighborhood and surrounding area. They found improper setbacks, easements, and questioned the overall design and configuration.
Broughton, however, rejected their concerns.
On January 16, he ordered Deputy Director of Permit Issuance and Code Enforcement Robert Vacchi to draft a memo objecting, in part, to findings that the development would adversely affect the General Plan, [North City Future Urbanizing Area Framework Plan], and the San Dieguito River Park Concept Plan.
"This comment is at best premature and more likely incorrect given the site constraints and parameters of the project," read Vacchi's memo. "Encroachment into the open space is minimal, reasonable, and necessary to fulfill the cultural and operational requirements of the church. The comment should be cleared or revised with more detailed analysis and specificity."
Less than three weeks later, Cecilia Gallardo head of the Advanced Planning and Engineering division, came to the planners defense, calling Vacchi's memo "flawed" and lacking "supporting information."
"The memo ignores a function of staff to provide a thorough, accurate assessment of conformance with plans and regulations and 'the best method to comply' based upon professional judgement," wrote Gallardo.
"While the project's lack of compliance with policies in the General Plan, [the North City Future Urbanizing Area Framework Plan], and the San Dieguito River Park Concept Plans is well documented in the staff review, the leap to compliance in the memo is not."
Gallardo's message carried little weight and planners assigned to Saint John Garabed were left to defend themselves.
"These changes truly benefit the applicant without their justification and responses to us and deprive the community of our legitimate neutral responses," reads a February 21 email from Senior Planner Terri Bumgardner to staffers from councilmember Sherri Lightner's Office.
The following day, Bumgardner sent an email to Broughton justifying her and her fellow planner, Joe Stanco's concerns about the project.
"We feel our comments are reasonable and consistent with our reviews we have done on other projects in the area."
Again the comments were ignored. Broughton scheduled meetings with the two planners as a way to force their hand.
"Now we are being called to the principal's office on Wednesday I am sure to reprimand us. We could use the Mayor's intervention now," read a follow-up email from Bumgardner.
On March 8, project manager John Fisher sent planner Stanco another message, once again urging him to tone down his concerns.
"I believe you met with Kelly to discuss this project and the comments of your review on March 6, 2013. I believe the results of that meeting are you are to revise your comments. I have reopened and adjusted your cycle to allow you to modify your comments to be in agreement with the conclusions of your meeting."
Bumgardner then asked that the project be assigned to another person.
Broughton fired back.
"I did not hear any independent analysis provided by you or your staff when we met nor did I see that analysis or justification contained in your staff comments. So, in conclusion, if you would like me to accept your email as a refusal to follow the direction provided to you and your staff, namely to apply the regualtions in a consistent and appropriate manner, please let me know," wrote Broughton on March 8.
In response, Bumgardner told Lightner's staffer that the email was "more threatening" than any previous emails and that she did "not know what to do next."
Broughton has since left the City.
On July 12, a public notice on Saint John Garabed was posted on the City's website. The notice mentioned that the project posed significant environmental impacts.