Council Seeks Added Staff, More Space for Planners

Times Staff Writer

Recognizing that explosive growth had overwhelmed its planning department, the San Diego City Council Thursday agreed upon a series of changes in the planning staff to shore up its weaknesses and make it more aggressive in shaping the way San Diego will grow.

Acting Mayor Ed Struiksma, who called for the special planning study that inspired the changes, said the new twists enacted by council members during a long, often chaotic budget hearing would serve to make the department more "pro-active" and "responsive."

"I would say there is a crisis in planning, as far as San Diego goes," Struiksma said after the meeting.

Struiksma said evidence of the planning crisis is borne out in the perception that "individual council members are unduly affecting the planning process" and in the frustration of environmentalists and others that spawned Proposition A, the city's slow-growth initiative.

A sense that something is wrong with planning at City Hall has been growing among council members, who have been called on repeatedly to enact special ordinances halting development in such places as Hillcrest and Mission Hills canyons, as well as inner-city neighborhoods like North Park.

Council members have complained that the community plans--the guidelines for growth in every community--do not match zoning. This creates a loophole that gives developers the zoning they need to build, for example, apartment complexes on land designated by the community plan for open space or single-family development. The result: Community outrage.

Frustrated, council members at times have openly chastised the planning staff for not keeping up with the press of business brought on by San Diego's building boom.

To rectify that, council members Thursday massaged the department's proposed $5.8-million budget. By the time they were done, nearly four hours later, they had added an estimated $855,000. And they have more to debate next week.

Among the changes approved:

- Finding 3,700 square feet in additional office space for planners, many of whom work with two desks fit into one cubicle. Estimated cost for the space, remodeling and a receptionist is $133,700. "Frankly, if they didn't hire another person, they are sitting on top of each other right now," Struiksma said.

- Using $250,000 to buy updated telephone equipment and computers for the department.

- Hiring a "training officer" at $46,500 a year to help educate community planning group members on how city government makes land-use decisions. Currently, planning group members, all of whom are volunteers, are left to fend for themselves. The training officer would also arrange planning workshops for city employees.

- Hiring three people, at a cost of $150,000, to revise the city's zoning code, which is considered badly out-of-date. Council members also agreed to hire additional personnel--the exact number has yet to be decided--to make sure that community plans and zoning match, thus averting neighborhood rebellions over development.

- Hiring more employees to handle the increased work, including a $50,000 hearing officer to take public testimony and make decisions on proposals from developers.

- Forming a so-called SWAT team to crack down on zoning violations, such as abandoned cars in residential yards.

Next year will be the first time the department will assume control of Project First Class, a zoning enforcement team put together by Councilman William Jones and formerly funded with federal money to patrol his Southeast San Diego district. Council members said Thursday they would like to continue zoning enforcement in the Southeast area, but also in other problem areas of the city. There is no agreement yet, however, on how many positions should be approved.

- Correcting what some say is the "piecemeal" approach by the planning department by establishing a "planning and policy unit" that will study growth issues citywide, rather than by neighborhood. This way, the department will be able to monitor how its individual decisions affect San Diego as a whole.

The impetus for most of the changes came from the report Struiksma ordered when he delivered the State of the City address in January.

The report, written by David C. Nielsen, a former chief of staff to ex-Mayor Roger Hedgecock, detailed a department that was overworked and cramped for space.

Nielsen--who conducted interviews with more than 150 builders, city planners, environmentalists and community planning group members--told council Thursday that the planning department lacked focus, although he praised the staff as "extraordinary" and boasted that young planners were the "future hope" of the city.

"I sensed general loss of trust and confidence in the way we do planning," Nielsen said.

Councilman Mike Gotch, a frequent critic of the department's failure to keep abreast of discrepancies between community plans and zoning, said Nielsen's report was an important step.

"We got a guy who went inside the planning department, who is challenging these guys," said Gotch. "Then he stands up and gives a report that is critical, and the department has to sit there."

Jay Powell, conservation coordinator for the local Sierra Club chapter, endorsed Nielsen's proposed changes during testimony Thursday. He said the suggestions, especially for more automation, were needed to bring the planning department "into the 20th Century and the computer age."

Although council members added $855,000 to the department's budget request Thursday, Struiksma said anticipated cuts to be made in other areas of the planning department budget could pare the final increase to $400,000--which will come out of about $2.6 million in surplus funds already identified by the city manager.

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