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5 Years of Cityhood : Poway Discovers ‘Quality Begets Quality’

Times Staff Writer

As communities along San Diego County’s coast consider incorporating as cities to achieve local government control and improve the level of public services, the county’s two youngest cities--Poway and Santee--celebrate their fifth anniversaries of cityhood.

What lessons can be learned from the two inland cities’ experiences? What has cityhood brought the two communities--and at what expense? Is incorporation a panacea for local woes?

They ought to give the keys of the city to Rodney Dangerfield, for all the respect this place used to get.

There was a time in years past when Poway was best known as that nondescript place between Rancho Bernardo and Ramona, with a 2 1/2-mile commercial strip lined with fast-food joints.

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Except for those who lived here, there was no reason to come unless you were on your way to somewhere else.

Government was administered by the county Board of Supervisors, which allowed homes to be built in flood-prone lowlands and creek beds and along unpaved roads.

There wasn’t much attention given to enforcing the county’s sign ordinance, so Poway Road, the main drag through town, was one big distraction.

The town suffered an identity crisis. “We’re on the country side of Rancho Bernardo,” some folks would explain, “and on the city side of Ramona.” Seems that nobody appreciated Poway just for being Poway, except for 4-H families whose children enjoyed being able to raise their farm animals and horses and whose parents needed to live within striking distance of San Diego jobs.

The popular Bernardo Winery is technically in Poway, but it’s called the Bernardo Winery and most everyone figures it’s really in Rancho Bernardo because it’s too charming to be in Poway.

The place just wasn’t getting much respect.

And so it was during the 1970s, when some folks thought that maybe Poway should become a city in its own right, with its own City Council instead of the politicians making decisions about Poway’s future from their offices in downtown San Diego.

A ballot measure to incorporate Poway was put to a vote in 1976. But voters, wary that not enough money could be generated locally to pay for such typical city services as police and fire protection, parks and public works, and worried, too, that the mere act of becoming a city might promote growth in the rural town, rejected the idea by a 3 to 1 margin.

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Updated studies in 1980 indicated, however, that Poway had come of age and probably could afford the financial burdens of cityhood. Debate centered on whether a locally controlled City Council would do a better job of governing growth than the Board of Supervisors. Another election was held in November of that year, and about 53% of the voters that time agreed it was time for home rule.

On Dec. 1, 1980--five years ago Sunday--Poway became a city, taking over such functions as water and sewers, zoning, law enforcement, public works and recreation.

Poway’s motto became “The City in the Country.” How healthy is the marriage after five years?

There’s still more country than city in Poway--which may be fine, depending on one’s point of view.

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- “Rural” is still a safe description, with the lingering and somewhat accurate perception that Poway remains and will always be a strip of commercial activity framed on both sides by country living. (Among those who have chosen Poway as home are Garry Templeton and Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, and former player Randy Jones. San Diego County industrialists jealously guard their privacy in hilltop homes that command views of the Pacific.)

- The closest thing to a department store in town is the Kmart (but city officials are excited because a Gemco will be built here in the coming months).

- There’s not a single franchised steak house in town, but several locally owned ones.

At the same time, home rule seems to have done well for itself.

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- There are no major controversies and no looming crises. City government is paying all its bills and has stowed $12 million in the bank for safekeeping, despite critics’ claims that the city would go broke after a couple of years.

- While traffic is still congested on Poway Road, at least it’s a more pleasant drive because of landscaped medians and fewer obnoxious signs.

- The city is moving ahead with gargantuan redevelopment plans to better protect the residents against floods and to pave dirt roads in some of the residential neighborhoods.

- A major, $80-million industrial park is planned for the south side of town--a development that will lead to the construction of a new, sorely needed east-west thoroughfare to give motorists an alternative to Poway Road.

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So all is well, or at least getting better, in Poway? It depends on who’s asked.

Among the city’s cheerleaders is Mayor Carl Kruse, who was appointed to the City Council three years ago to replace Clyde Rexrode, the mayor who died the day before he stood for reelection in 1982 but was reelected by voters nonetheless.

Kruse, a senior loan officer at the Bank of Rancho Bernardo, brags that “the quality of life in Poway has improved for everyone. Some people may be upset because they had to take down a (commercial) sign or weren’t allowed to build in the flood plain or put up as many housing units as they would have liked, but overall, we’re all better off because we’re a city.”

Councilwoman Mary Shepardson puts it more bluntly: “This place would be a mess if we hadn’t incorporated. The county was favoring developers at the expense of the community and nobody down there (in San Diego) really seemed to care what happened up here. No (county) supervisor ever lived in Poway; some of the planning commissioners never visited Poway, and the planners who made the recommendations seldom came up here.”

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Taking a sort of middle ground is Bill Cole, president of the Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think anyone can argue that the quality of life has improved in Poway with cityhood.

“If there’s an argument--and I don’t wish to start one--it’s whether the costs have been greater than they should be, and that’s very subjective. It’s a question of property rights, of owners who want the greatest possible return on their investment versus a government which has responsibility to the rest of the citizens to ensure that the land is developed in an acceptable way.”

Among those who predicted doom under cityhood five years ago was Alan Hemphill, one of the chief spokesmen against incorporation who argued that nothing would be gained by cityhood and predicted that incorporation was not economically feasible because there would not be enough locally generated revenue to finance municipal operations.

“Maybe there would be for the first year or two, but the lack of sales tax and a property-tax base in the future would mean Poway would have many years of marginal existence as a community,” he ventured in 1980.

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Last week he stuck by his guns. “We aren’t as damaged as I would have thought,” he conceded. But because of the city’s poor sales-tax base--the second lowest in the county per capita--"I’m still concerned for the viability of the city in the future.”

City officials are trying to turn that around. While Poway has the highest average-family income among the 16 incorporated cities in San Diego County, residents too often leave the city and make their major purchases elsewhere, figures indicate. Consider the fact that, countywide, retail sales amount to $4,637 per person per year, while retail sales in Poway amount to only $3,570 per person per year. In other words, while Poway residents may have the most to spend, they’re going out of town to do it. And every time that occurs, it costs the city 1% of the retail-sales tax that goes to some other city’s coffers.

While there are about 1,000 retail businesses in Poway, 60% of the city’s sales-tax revenues are generated by just 20 businesses--the likes of Kmart (the city’s only national merchandiser), a couple of drug stores, a couple of grocery stores, a couple of building supply companies and--the city’s most-important industry--six auto dealerships.

There will never be a regional shopping center built in Poway because there’s not enough vacant, usable land; there’s not a big enough demand to justify one, and there is no quick freeway access and exposure.

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Still, City Hall is not altogether discouraged. Since incorporation, sales tax, the city’s second largest source of income after property tax, has increased from $900,000 to $1.7 million annually. Hawthorne Machinery Co., the county’s only retail marketplace for Caterpillar-brand heavy equipment, has announced plans to relocate from Kearny Mesa to Poway’s proposed industrial park, a move that would add an additional $750,000 or so in sales-tax revenue to the city, officials estimate. And the proposed Gemco store would contribute an estimated $320,000 a year to the city in new sales taxes.

Has the City Council in this supposedly rural community suddenly and traitorously turned pro-growth on its residents?

“We’re slow growth in our philosophy but moderate, quality growth in our actions,” Kruse said. “There is some growth that is going to occur because of the rights of property ownership. And while we’ve increased density of development in some areas, notably the South Poway (industrial park) plan, we’ve down-scaled density elsewhere.”

The 700-acre industrial park, he added, will be generally out of sight to most Poway residents because it will be tucked behind a ridge line. But through its development and resulting property-tax income to the city’s redevelopment agency, the city will be able to construct a major road--it will link Interstate 15 with California 67--along the southern edge of the city. If the city were not incorporated, the road, which will help relieve congestion on Poway Road, would not otherwise be built.

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And while there is a residential building boom of sorts occurring now in Poway, those developments were approved by the county before incorporation and are just now being constructed because of the improved economy and increasing demand for new single-family homes, officials note.

Among the few criticisms of City Hall is one that some may consider a compliment.

A handful of businessmen and developers in Poway--who do not want to be named for fear their comments will come back to haunt them--complain that the City Council has an anti-business bias that has driven businesses away from town or otherwise made life difficult because of extraordinary demands on architectural style and site improvements.

Indeed, the city planning staff reviews building plans to the smallest details, including the use of exterior colors, type of building material and wall and roof design, right down to the amount of overhang and type of window trim.

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Barry Hogan, the city’s planning director from 1981 through his resignation on Nov. 22 to pursue a career in the private sector, said the city’s demands on builders are actually no more stringent than in many other cities and less rigid than those imposed by, for instance, Del Mar.

“A lot of builders still haven’t made the mental shift from when we were under the county,” Hogan said. “They still think of those days when they could do anything they wanted. Poway was the dumping ground for a lot of junk prior to incorporation. Now we’re getting people’s attention that we want quality development.

“There are some people who will not develop in Poway because they hear we’re tough and others who say, ‘Fine, we don’t have a problem with that.’ That’s who we want in Poway. Quality begets quality.”

One such builder is Scott Thayer, senior vice president of Arnold Pacific Properties in Orange County. The firm is finishing construction of a neighborhood commercial center to be anchored by a Food Basket grocery store and a Thrifty drug store.

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“The city told us up front what their expectations were of our development. All the cards were on the table at the beginning. And the fact is, that’s probably how we would have built our center anyway,” Thayer said.

One of city government’s boasts is that it limited the size of free-standing signs to 64 square feet, contrasted with the 300-square-foot signs permitted under county rule. (Some existing signs may be around for as long as eight years before they are deemed illegal, while all new commercial developments must meet the new requirement immediately.) Along the same theme, the city purchased outright the only four billboards in the city, then had them torn down, while it prohibited A-frame-style sandwich boards advertising real-estate developments. Instead, the city allows them to erect small, tasteful “directional” signs on kiosks around the city.

Among those who may have been a bit troubled by the sign law is Dan Grubb, president of the family-owned Lou Grubb Auto Center, which has three of the town’s six auto dealerships.

Grubb, who wears the hats of both businessman and resident, admits he is torn by the city’s development restrictions. “But if the city is trying to control growth, clean the place up and give it a new image, I think they are reaching that goal,” he said. “Doing business here can be difficult, but sometimes it’s worth it. I was attracted to Poway because of the business, but now I’ve also found it a nice place to live.”

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