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Civic Planning Gets Poor Marks at Conference

September 06, 1987|LINDA LIPMAN | Special to The Times: Lipman is a Poway free-lance writer.

Get a politician, two developers, a preservationist and a couple of professional planners into a room and they won't agree on how to manage growth. But they will tell you that Californians are reacting to the growth more than planning for it.

In a conference session titled, "Are We Planning or Reacting," that was part of the annual meeting of the California chapter, American Planning Assn., held in San Diego, even the professional planners admitted to being "muzzled" at times in proposing innovative planning.

Instead, much of California and, particularly, Southern California, have shifted into a reactive mode when it comes to using creativity in the planning process.

"Professional planners can't go out on a limb and provide their best because the plan can be overturned by the decision maker--the politician. I can't imagine any professisonal actually being fired over insisting on a good plan, but they might be held back in their career," said Angeles Leira, principal planner with San Diego's Planning Department.

"So what happens is that many planners put the muzzle on themselves to protect their jobs, and at the same time go along with the politicians."

When planning is needed, the politicians appoint task forces, hire more consultants who prepare more reports, adopt ordinances or impose reactive, stop-gap measures. What could be wrong with that approach?

"The planning process has gone amok," said Peter J. Hall, president of Great American Development Co. "All these moratoria and special assessments just buy time until the next four-year (election) cycle is up. Planning needs to be pro-active, not reactive. For example, the water problem is a long-term issue. We need long-term solutions. But that's difficult when there are ongoing reelections."

San Diego City Council member Abbe Wolfsheimer didn't comment on the problem of election-influenced planning by politicians, but blamed reactive planning on the current pay-as-you-grow policy of providing infrastructure, such as new roads, sewage systems, parks, libraries, schools and police and fire protection.

"We have facilities benefit assessment fees and impact fees, but these aren't collected until the development is done and the building permit is issued. By that time, the FBA dollars buy less and less of the facilities that we need, and there is less land available to build those facilities, Wolfsheimer said.

"After the new home buyer moves in, there is tremendous lag time until he sees the new facilities built. Right now, our growth management policies are working to try to manage the lag time."

Developer Chris Mortenson, who has been active in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, added that "by reacting (to current growth problems), people tend to overreact.

"I don't think every old building should be saved. Not every old building is a good building. It may have been planned wrong.

"It may not add vibrance to the community, and restoring it won't restore the community that it's in. In planning, reactions like interim development ordinances, ballot initiatives and moratoria, are overreactions as well," he said.

Hall added, "These are done under the guise of good planning,"

Although the word planning tends to indicate that concern for future needs is the main intent, some land planning always has been reactionary.

'React to Present Needs'

Yolanta Schwartz, deputy planning director of City of Lomita, pointed out: "We can't project what the next generation will want or need. Back in 1964, when Lomita incorporated, the fathers of the city thought we wanted growth limits. Now we don't have the industry to attract jobs and grow. We're dying. We, as planners, need to react to present needs."

"Yes, we need to react," agreed Leira. "But we should have long-term goals that we can vary along the way if times change. Reaction should be part of our job. But the problem comes when we are reacting all the time and our vision and our goals are lost.

"Then we're in trouble and we impose emergency ordinances. Pretty soon we can't reverse the pattern, and all planning becomes emergency measures."

To restore the long-range planning process of the past (before ballot initiatives and "interim" ordinances became the common planning tools), panelists offered the following suggestions:

Dedicate Land to City

--Follow the initial Growth Management Plan (in San Diego). Implement plans the way they were written. Builders should dedicate land to the city outright so the land can be preserved as open space. Have complete reports go to the city council so members have an "honest and complete story" of how the development will affect the community before they approve it. (Wolfsheimer).

--Remove the planning process from the election process. Developers should work with professional staff planners who provide consistency. Don't keep changing the ground rules for developers. (Hall).

--Politicians and planners should visit the sites they are working on or voting on. Institute a comprehensive historic preservation ordinance and preservation fund. (Carol Lindemulder, past president, Save Our Heritage Organization, San Diego)

--Plan now for transportation for downtown San Diego. (moderator Max Schmidt, assistant vice president, Centre City Development Corp., San Diego).

Planners from throughout the state attended the conference, which also included sessions on large-scale development, recreation and tourism, urban preservation, restoration and renewal and coastal and waterfront land use.

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