In the first major test of Mayor Roger Hedgecock's policy to prevent early development of outlying parts of the city, the City Council refused Tuesday to allow property owners in the San Dieguito Valley near Del Mar to begin planning for development of their 840-acre tract.
The 7-0 vote against approval of a "threshold determination" came despite the fact that Hedgecock, in court defending himself against felony charges of perjury and conspiracy, was absent from the two-hour session.
Hedgecock, who said he had made it very clear to the council members that he opposed the project, said later that he was delighted by the vote.
"Planning for development in that area would have been extremely premature, violated the growth-management plan, and further aggravated our urban sprawl problem," Hedgecock said.
Bruce Henderson, a La Jolla attorney and spokesman for the property owners, vowed that the group would not accept the defeat, which leaves their property in the city's urban reserve, land not scheduled for development until after 1995.
Under a council policy adopted last year at Hedgecock's urging, the city planning staff cannot be asked to work with an applicant before a "threshold determination" is approved by the council. Before that was enacted, developers could begin planning before coming to the council.
In part, the policy was adopted to prevent developers from putting pressure on the council by claiming, "I've already spent a lot of money on this (plan), so you can't deny me now," said assistant planning director Mike Stepner. Hedgecock's policy change was designed to halt such planning efforts by developers and landholders in outlying areas on land in the urban reserve.
In Tuesday's action, the City Council first held a public hearing on whether the property east of Interstate 5 at the city's northernmost boundary was needed to meet the city's growth needs in the next few years. The council then voted unanimously to refuse to allow the landowners to begin planning efforts, which could have resulted in the land being removed prematurely from its development freeze.
The vote was in stark contrast to the 5-4 council approval in September of the controversial La Jolla Valley project, also in the city's urban reserve. But that project, passed over the objections of Hedgecock, was not subject to the "threshold determination" policy because it was already in the planning pipeline when the new policy was adopted, according to Stepner.
The developers of another huge project, Ralphs Ranch, which lies east of La Jolla Valley and south of Rancho Penasquitos, will not be subject to a "threshold determination" vote because they have opted to go through the county planning and approval process rather than attempt to annex to the city.
Henderson said his group had no desire to develop the land before 1995 but wanted to form a planning organization now to begin designing for future development.
Lynn Benn, a Torrey Pines planning group official and growth management advocate, argued that the City Council, by granting the San Dieguito Valley landowners permission to begin to plan, would be violating its own policy by allowing premature planning efforts, then giving in to early development because of the pressures of developers who had spent thousands of dollars on those efforts.
"It's simple," Benn said. "We want you to uphold your own policy. We don't want the development process to start."
Henderson protested that city officials were making "exactly the mistake we made in Mission Valley. Development after development after development occurred before proper planning was done."
Deputy Mayor Bill Mitchell, chairing the meeting in Hedgecock's absence, argued that the area on both sides of I-5 should have a master plan now, designed to "create a pleasing gateway" for the visitor entering San Diego.
City Council members appeared to be swayed by Mitchell's proposal until it was learned that it included areas in the Torrey Pines Community Plan, produced by Benn's planning group.
Councilman Dick Murphy exploded in a rare display of anger, calling Mitchell's last-minute effort to usurp a portion of the Torrey Pines plan for the new group "the epitome of stupidity."
Mitchell countered that he felt he had been "snookered" into a position of being the heavy, "when all I am trying to do is create a pleasing entrance to our city--on both sides of the I-5 freeway."
Councilman Mike Gotch played peacemaker, offering a motion that proposed implementation of the entire San Dieguito River Regional Plan through joint city and county efforts, with efforts to acquire the "gateway" area along the freeway to create a landscaped entry to the city limits. The proposal passed, 6-1, with Mitchell dissenting.
Henderson said after the hearing that he would meet with other property owners to determine whether the group will take legal action to force the City Council to approve city participation in planning of the area or whether property owners will do their own planning without city help and return to the city for development approval at a later date.
Jay Powell, Sierra Club spokesman and one of about 25 environmentalists who appeared to protest early development of the river valley land, expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the hearing.
"We feel that the entire river valley, from the ocean far inland, should be protected by implementation of the recently approved San Dieguito River Regional Plan," he said.