Plagued by overcrowded schools in Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch, San Diego city school officials are proposing an immediate moratorium on the "letters of availability" that the school district issues to developers interested in building residential projects in the city's future growth areas.
Two separate bans are being suggested for different reasons by Supt. Tom Payzant and trustee Larry Lester, but they are intended to have the same effect: to halt further crowding of schools in burgeoning Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch until the school district can decide how to fund new schools and where to build them. Under both proposals, the moratorium would last until Jan. 1.
Though it is unclear how many developers the proposals will affect, they have drawn the opposition of the Construction Industry Federation, which believes the school district has sufficient assets to raise the funds needed for new schools.
Payzant's proposal, to be presented to the school board today, calls for a moratorium on the letters of availability in Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch, Paradise Hills and portions of Tierrasanta. The letters are issued by school districts when a developer presents a tentative map of a residential project and agrees to pay developer fees.
Payzant's plan is designed to give school planners, who are writing a long-range report on the district's needs for schools, time to sort factors involved without new developments being approved, Payzant said.
"There are so many variables right now impacting the final development of that plan that it seems wise to stop and let that process be completed before a lot of other decisions are made," he said. Payzant acknowledged that the primary focus of the proposal is the Mira Mesa-Scripps Ranch area. Residents there last week complained to the school board of overcrowding, and the board is scheduled to take action today to reduce jammed classes in Jerabek Elementary School on Avenida Magnifica.
Meanwhile, Lester is suggesting a moratorium on letters of availability for the Mira Mesa-Scripps Ranch region alone, to prevent a rush of developers seeking school district approval before a scheduled Jan. 1 increase in developer fees. His initiative will also be discussed at today's school board meeting.
If voters approve the statewide $800-million bond issue for new schools that is on the November ballot, a new schedule of developer fees will take effect Jan. 1. The new fees would allow school districts to collect up to $1.50 per square foot on new residential developments, but would take away their power to issue letters of availability.
For a typical 1,700-square-foot single-family home, the district would be able to collect about $2,550, substantially more than the $1,832 it now receives. On a 1,000-square-foot unit in a multifamily building, the school would receive about $1,500 instead of the $897 it now collects.
Lester said that he anticipates developers may apply for letters of availability before the new year to beat the price hike.
"The district could be in a much more difficult position in terms of planning for this increased student population . . . if we're inundated with requests for these letters of availability," he said.
It is difficult to predict how many developers might ask for the approval, which the district sends to the City Council, before Jan. 1, school officials said. Last year, the district approved about a dozen, said Charles Johnson, director of facilities services.
One builder, Sunland Housing Corp., is scheduled to receive a letter of availability Sept. 23 for Mesa Rim, a single-family project on Calle Cristobal in Mira Mesa. Both Payzant and Lester said they would be willing to allow an exception to the moratorium for that project.
Kim Kilkenny, legislative counsel for the Construction Industry Federation, said he will speak against the plan at today's school board meeting. Kilkenny claimed that the district owns "over $100 million" worth of properties that are underutilized or vacant, which can be leased or used to raise money for school construction.
"It is our position that if they use those properties in a responsible manner they could generate enough revenue to solve their facilities problems," he said.
The district has developed such a "property management" program, but it is being held up by negotiations with the city over which vacant school sites will be leased to developers, and a proposal now making its way to the City Council that would zone the vacant sites so that they would be difficult to lease.
Kilkenny said it is difficult to tell whether a 3 1/2-month delay would cost a prospective developer money.
"You have to build during windows of opportunity, when interest rates are low and the economy is in relatively good shape, such as now," he said. "It's anybody's guess whether a three-month delay would put someone into a recessionary period."