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Under the Influence of the Rich and Powerful

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Single-purpose special interest groups continue to work their charm at all levels of government. The San Diego City Council is no exception.

Faced with increasingly costly campaigns for public office and saddled with an antiquated election system requiring expensive citywide rather than district campaigns, the San Diego City Council has again capitulated to the demands of a few, at the expense of many.

Last month, a City Council majority approved the lease of 120 acres of city-owned public open space in the San Dieguito River Valley to allow development of the Fairbanks Polo Club. This facility will be adjacent to a private golf course also developed on public open-space lands.

This lease concludes a three-year string of events in which a developer persuaded a City Council majority to violate its adopted Growth Management Plan. The premature development of 340 homes was allowed in the San Dieguito River Valley in return for the conveyance to the city of 616 acres of undevelopable land as open space. The developer then leased back 400 acres for development of a private, members-only golf course on that same public land at the bargain basement rate of $3,000 per year for the first 25 years of a 61-year lease! The balance of the 214 acres was designated open space in perpetuity.

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No sooner was the ink dry on that lease than various parties began expressing an interest in leasing the remaining open space acreage for their special needs. In March the final proposal was unveiled--a $1.2-million facility of polo fields, club house, corrals and pastures encompassing all the remaining public open space acquired in 1983.

Curiously, a requested equestrian/pedestrian trail for the public was rejected by the lessee, and the final open space acreage was surrendered by a 6-2 vote of the San Diego City Council.

In three years the council has bowed to a developer’s demands, allowed housing to be built in the urban reserve, acquired 614 acres of undevelopable land for open space as a condition of that development and, finally, leased all of that same open space acreage for private and semi-private use at a shamefully low rate.

By contrast, the San Diego County Assn. for the Retarded has been seeking City Council approval to lease three acres of city land since November, 1980. The association plans to construct a 30,000-square-foot building for a vocational workshop for 300 disabled persons. The workshop would assist the mentally retarded and physically disabled in becoming productive and self-sufficient.

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An ambivalent City Council and an indifferent city staff have blocked approval of this worthy request for half a decade. Are there two sets of rules at City Hall? Should the rich and powerful exert such extraordinary influence?

Last fall, an angry electorate struck back. Proposition A, the Managed Growth Initiative, was passed overwhelmingly, sending the special interest advocates running for cover. If the elected officials wouldn’t protect our communities from overdevelopment, the people would.

Proposition A breathed new life into the neighborhood power movement. Premature or architecturally bland development could be rejected. Average San Diegans now had the power under the managed growth banner to protect our coastline and bays, preserve canyons and open space, and ensure all development would be evaluated in the context of the community plan.

As the shock waves generated by the passage of Proposition A began to subside at City Hall, a new citizens’ revolt started to take shape. Citizens began to speak of mounting an initiative to save San Diego’s canyons.

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Faced with the prospect of battling another people’s initiative, the City Council adopted a decidedly pro-environment posture, and the shouts for a canyon initiative became whispers.

It was during that lull that the Fairbanks Polo Club lease was presented to the City Council for consideration and approval. Failing to acknowledge the sweetheart deal and refusing to require public access to publicly held land, the council approved the project.

An angry citizenry can and should demand an end to such leasing practices. At a time when community leaders are calling for neighborhood parks in our park-poor urbanized areas, the City Council is squandering an open space resource that should serve present and future generations. The public must hold accountable its elected officials. Speak out. Your voice can make a difference.


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