Bringing to an end months of lengthy, sometimes arcane, debate, the San Diego City Council on Monday finally closed the books on shaping the controversial Interim Development Ordinance, as well as a companion measure aimed at keeping development off of most of the city's environmentally sensitive lands.
While the council's actions Monday were fairly anti-climatic--confirmation votes on several exemptions to the slow-growth measures--they were underscored by warnings from Mayor Maureen O'Connor that approval of the exemptions would result in a citizen initiative calling for even harsher controls on development.
"There's going to be trouble out in the streets," said O'Connor, whose office tried to work out behind-the-scenes compromises between slow-growth advocates and the development industry.
"I tell you, the chair tried and I'm not going to take the heat when it--a citizens' initiative--comes back and it qualifies," O'Connor said.
Indeed, many of the slow-growth advocates who have appeared before the council on behalf of Citizens for Limited Growth were absent from Monday's hearing. They are putting the finishing touches on an initiative that will be printed on Friday and targeted to qualify for the June ballot, said Linda Martin, co-chairman of the group.
"We're so busy right now," said Martin. "We're trying to get this initiative ready. It's incredible. We're working 12, 16 hours a day, all weekend long. We can't stop."
The initiative would be a two-pronged measure, said Jim Kelly-Markham, who is on the steering committee for Citizens for Limited Growth.
First, it would restrict construction to as little as 4,000 residential units a year if the city and county government fail to meet five environmental benchmarks--air quality, water supply, waste-water treatment plants, traffic congestion levels and recycling to reduce the need for landfills.
The second prong, he said, would be to adopt another version of the environmental protection ordinance, only without the council-sanctioned exemptions.
While the details of the initiative were not discussed at the council meeting, its threat drew sharp words from Councilman Bill Cleator, who openly complained that his colleagues would even think about bending to the will of Martin's group.
Cleator, who is well-known for his pro-development stances, described the slow-growth advocates as "three or four" people who just moved to San Diego, including Martin, whom he dubbed as an overnight growth "guru."
"I don't think we should bow down to her," Cleator said.
The comments came while Cleator and the other council members were asked to confirm, on second reading, several exemptions they proposed Aug. 7 to the IDO and its companion measure, the Resource Protection Overlay Zone. The amendments approved that day left slow-growthers fuming and prompted them to work on the initiative.
Exemptions From IDO
The IDO would allow builders to construct 8,000 residential units over the next year--a rate that is roughly half that set by the development industry last year.
A ruling by the city attorney's office on Aug. 7 held that big developments with council-approved subdivision, or "vesting tentative," maps were exempted from the IDO. Council members also voted another exemption that permitted additional developments--either 30 units or less or 175 units or less, depending on what process was used to approve them in the city--to proceed.
A tally by the Planning Department last month showed that those exemptions have gobbled up more than 4,700 building permits, and that developers have exhausted the permits allowed during the next year in 12 fast-growing areas--including La Jolla, Rancho Bernardo, Mira Mesa and Sabre Springs.
Council members, who said they were committed to the 8,000-unit cap, voted unanimously Monday to make those amendments stick.
There was some procedural scrambling, however, over what to do with the environmental protections, designed to toughen up rules on whether developers can build on hillsides, wetlands and flood plains.
Council members voted Aug. 7 to approve the stringent new requirements, but--on the strength of Councilman William Jones' swing vote--also exempted several major projects along the undulating hills of the Interstate 15 area.
With Jones now off the council--he resigned hours before the meeting because he has started classes at Harvard Business School--council members debated once again what to do with those projects. The developments include Miramar Ranch North, 4,650 units over 1,950 acres; County Island, 1,350 units over 525 acres; as well as two projects totaling 2,854 units along Black Mountain Road.
Councilman Ed Struiksma asked for the exemptions in his district because he said the environmental regulations would disrupt projects necessary to fund school and street improvements in those areas.
On Monday, Councilman Mike Gotch made a motion to scuttle those exemptions, saying it was needed to "restore some integrity" to the environmental protection ordinance. Gotch proposed that each of the developments come before the council individually for public hearings on possible exemptions, instead of granting them blanket exclusions.
"We've got an initiative staring us in the face," O'Connor said, who backed Gotch. "We're talking about building consensus here, and if the developers were concerned, I wish they would step forward and say they would go through one more hoop."
Without Jones, the council deadlocked at 4-4 and Gotch's motion died.
Gotch then moved to accept the environmental protection ordinance, calling it a "compromise," and the second reading of the measure passed, 7-1, with Cleator voting against it.