Can the State Disregard Voter-Approved Protections for Our Coast?

| July 4, 2022 | 0 Comments

By Paul Krueger

Let’s agree that San Diego needs more housing for our low, very low, and homeless residents.

But plans for a 60-unit, 60-foot-high apartment complex in Pacific Beach should be subject to vigorous debate, and – if appropriate – a legal challenge. 

That’s because the proposed project is west of Interstate 5, in an area specifically protected from high-rise construction.

This height limit isn’t the result of a city staff report or even a city council vote back in 1972. It was actually enshrined by San Diego voters, who cast their ballots in favor of a 30-foot height-limit in numerous areas west of the I-5. 

Our city’s successful effort to prevent “Miami Beach”-style high rises is also separate from and in addition to the coastal protections approved by a state-wide vote that created the Coastal Commission. Passage of our local ballot measure 50 years ago reflects our city’s strongly-help commitment to preserving sight-lines and human-scale construction near our beautiful beaches and bays, from La Jolla south to the border.

But a state agency now claims these protections must yield to a developers’ plan for multi-story housing. And our city’s Planning Director, Heidi Vonblum, was quick to endorse the state’s position that housing trumps coastal protections, even those ratified by a public vote.

Instead of acknowledging the obvious conflict and the need for public discussion and legal analysis of those competing needs, Vonblum told the Union-Tribune that a local voter initiative “cannot supersede the state Density Bonus Law, which requires the city to grant certain waivers for projects that include affordable housing.”

But affordable housing is, of course, not the issue there. Plainly put, the real issue is who has the power to control land-use decisions in specially-protected, voter approved areas on — and very close to — our coastline.

Public reaction to the state’s pronouncement was swift and furious. Bay Ho resident Mark Heinze summarized those concerns in a letter published by Union-Tribune. “To tell us that our voter-approved 30-foot height limit can be ignored… is a sign that the will of the people is not being represented well in Sacramento,” Heinze wrote.

Other commentators also noted how additional vehicle traffic generated by residents of more multi-unit housing west of the I-5 will further crowd the already overwhelmed intersections at East Mission Bay Drive and Balboa and Garnet Avenues, and other heavily-traveled corridors that San Diegans from every neighborhood use to access the beach and bay.

Pacific Beach resident Ted Hilton argues that these legitimate concerns are “… a perfect example of the community and local government understanding best what works, rather than a distant state agency and a developer…”

The Union Tribune report also notes that the state’s controversial determination extends to proposed multi-story projects that could be built in all other areas now protected by our local, voter-approved ordinance. This includes portions of University City, Pacific Beach, the Midway District, and South Bay coastal areas within city of San Diego boundaries.

Fortunately, the groups that should take the lead in challenging the state’s dictates and make sure this proposed project is subject to public debate are responding. Planning groups and town councils in the P.B. and Mission Beach and Bay areas are now aware of the issue and already discussing possible responses and strategies.

Two experienced land use attorneys say the issue is ripe for a legal challenge, in which the courts would decide if state housing mandates do indeed supersede voter-approved protections. One of those attorneys cited two recent cases in which the courts upheld local control and environmental protections. 

These initial responses are a hopeful sign that this very important issue will get the attention it deserves.

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Category: Government, Housing, Local News

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General articles by the Presidio Sentinel and Associated Partners.