An ambitious plan to save canyons from the threat of development in Mission Hills, Hillcrest and related neighborhoods was whittled to the bone Monday by the San Diego City Council after an emotional, sometimes nasty public hearing at which one speaker became so upset that he nearly collapsed at the podium.
By the time the confusing session had ended late Monday, the council had yanked most of the teeth from the proposed plan, which called for specific "down zoning" on some steep slopes and canyon bottoms to prevent construction of apartments and condominiums.
Council members--following the lead of Councilman Bill Cleator, whose district encompasses many of the canyons in question--voted unanimously to endorse the altered measure "in concept" and send it back to the Planning Department for study and revision. It will return to the council for final action in four to six weeks.
At the heart of Monday's vote was one of the most crucial issues facing city officials during this era of San Diego's booming growth: How willing is government to curb the rights of property owners so it can preserve the environment? The fight over the plan pitted some neighborhood residents in Uptown--an area bounded by downtown, Old Town, Mission Valley and University Heights--against landowners and would-be developers.
People on both sides of the issue packed the council chambers to its 245-person capacity Monday afternoon, and fire marshals had to turn others away. Under the rallying cry of "Keep Uptown Unique," those in favor of the reduced density plan set up a table in the hallway to pass out fliers.
"We won," said J. Michael McDade, the attorney hired by landowners and developers to defeat the plan being pushed by the Uptown Planners, the official planning group for the area.
"What they (Uptown Planners) proposed today would have immediately taken away people's property rights," said McDade, former chief of staff for Mayor Roger Hedgecock.
The plan voted on by council members Monday was an updated "open space element" of the Uptown Community Plan, the theoretic blueprint for the way the upscale neighborhoods north of downtown should be developed. Members of the Uptown Planners wanted a tougher open space plan because they said outdated zoning and increased residential construction had threatened to cover canyon slopes with apartments and condominiums.
Within the last five years, there has been a marked increase in the number of projects destined for Uptown canyon hillsides, according to Planning Department statistics. Since 1980, there have been 47 projects approved, for a total of 300 apartment and condominium units. A department report dated Oct. 9 said there are 28 more hillside projects in the works, for an additional 236 units.
The open space plan rested on two controversial proposals. First, it called for the city to change its zoning maps--or "down zone"--the most desirable canyon slopes to allow only one dwelling unit per acre, the strictest zoning the city has. The provision effectively would wipe out zoning that allowed what proponents claimed were up to 100 units per acre in some canyon areas.
The second proposal would call for the "transfer of development rights." In the case of the person with 100 units per acre, this measure would allow him to transfer the use of the extra 99 units to specially designated corridors along 4th and 5th avenues and Washington Street.
But a compromise proposed by Cleator and approved unanimously by the council removed both of the cornerstone proposals. They were replaced with directions that Uptown canyons should be protected under the city's hillside review ordinance, yet another set of guidelines that regulate how developers can build on steep slopes.
During the hearing, proponents of canyon preservation said hillside development was an "unreasonable, insensitive . . . threat" to their investments in their homes. Tess Wilcoxson-Stowers, a member of Uptown Planners, said stiffer laws are needed to protect "property values and quality of life. The resident property owners of this community are asking you for the right to protect the investment of their homes."
Jay Guedalia, who owns property on Montecito Way in Mission Hills, called backers of the plan "hijackers trying to take my land with unique words. Unique to me means weird, strange and that's what I think these people are."
Guedalia and his partner, James C. Martinez, own property across the street from John M. Lomac, president of the Uptown Planners and a driving force behind the preservation plan. The would-be developers have seen plans for a 12-unit building defeated, in part because of Lomac's lobbying effort against the project. Now they have scaled back their project, but they said the proposed open space element plan would leave them only about 1,000 square feet to build on a sharply sloping lot that covers 16,000 square feet.