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Moratorium on Building in Canyons Gains : Planners Approve Delay to Help Preserve Uptown Open Space

Times Staff Writer

A moratorium on building apartments and condominiums on canyon slopes in Mission Hills, Hillcrest and related communities cleared its first hurdle Thursday when the San Diego Planning Commission voted 5-1 to approve it.

The measure, which would last as long as one year, represents one of the bolder steps taken by the city to preserve canyons as open space. It comes at the urging of residents who say high-density development is nibbling away at and destroying some of San Diego’s most pristine hillsides.

The moratorium would impose tighter zoning on steep slopes in Uptown--an area bounded by downtown, Old Town, Mission Valley and University Heights.

The temporary zoning would restrict development to one house per acre. That means a developer could only build one house on a canyon parcel where current zoning, in some instances, permits 12 apartments or condominiums.

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Members of the Uptown Planners, the area’s official planning group, have been pushing for the temporary zoning change because they fear that a handful of apartment and condominium projects would work their way through the planning process before a permanent solution to saving the canyons could be completed. That solution, a revised community plan, may be ready for public debate and approval as early as November.

The planning group blames inappropriate zoning, a construction boom and the city’s policy of promoting inner-city housing for the threat of development in the canyons.

And Planning Department staff members, who backed the moratorium, offered statistics Thursday to show that development pressure is growing. They told commissioners there have been 62 apartment or condominium units proposed so far this year, double the average rate from previous years.

Some Uptown land owners, however, blasted the moratorium during the commissioner’s public hearing Thursday as unfair, claiming it is like taking their property without paying for it.

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“It just doesn’t seem to be the American way,” said Albert A. Gabbs, a San Diego land owner.

Gabbs told commissioners he and his wife own four contiguous lots in a canyon that overlooks the bay. To illustrate his point, he held up a cardboard divided into four parts.

Gabbs said that under the old zoning, he and his wife would have been able to build four houses on the lots. Under the moratorium, however, those lots would be considered to be one parcel and only one home could be built.

“You’re taking three-fourths of it,” he said, ripping three symbolic lots from the cardboard and throwing them down.

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Another land owner on Eagle Street said the moratorium would reduce the value of his land, which is zoned for multifamily construction, from $250,000 to $85,000.

But the commission sided with the Uptown Planners. Commissioner Chairman Ron Roberts said the moratorium would be a “timely intervention” to save the canyons.

And Commissioner Paula Oquita responded to land owner complaints by saying it is not the job of city government to make sure someone’s investment in land remains safe.

“To my mind, zoning that exists wasn’t performed by a deity,” she said. “An investment in land that carries a certain zoning, carries with it the same kind risks as any other financial investment.

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