Sides Lining Up for Showdown on Growth

Times Staff Writer

Faced with 150 people eager to speak their minds, the San Diego City Council on Monday night began wading through hours of public testimony on whether to adopt strict limits on how fast the city can grow.

The testimony was the necessary prelude to an anticipated council vote on whether to accept an interim ordinance that would, for the first time, put a limit on the number of residential units developers could build in each neighborhood throughout San Diego.

Lining up firmly against the ordinance were business and development interests, who have been saying for weeks its adoption would have dire economic consequences and throw the local economy into a tailspin.

But at the beginning of the public hearing, council members heard dozens of neighborhood residents appealing for the limits, saying, in the words of one speaker, that it was time to stop the "slam-bam-thank-you-San Diego-type of development."

Those supporting the interim measure included members of planning groups from North City West, Pacific Beach, University Heights and Southeast San Diego and slow-growth activists who are threatening to pass an initiative that is even more strict if the proposed ordinance fails.

"We watch horrified as the voracious growth machine destroys San Diego's precious non-renewable resources, her unique land forms and irreplaceable sensitive habitats," said Linda Martin, chairwoman of Citizens For Limited Growth.

The proposed measure--called the Interim Development Ordinance (IDO)--would apply the brakes to growth by setting a lid on the number of housing units developers can build in each of the city's neighborhoods. In the Mid-City area, for instance, the lid would allow 516 homes, apartments and condominiums where developers have averaged 1,042 a year between 1983 and 1985.

In addition, the measure would allow a cushion, or "float," of 700 residential units that could be parcelled out around the city by the City Council.

In all, the measure would allow 9,300 units citywide each year, a sharp reduction to the 14,874 added in 1986, a boom period fueled by low interest rates.

Crying Doomsday

The proposed cutback has moved developers to issue sharp warnings about economic ramifications.

In a prelude to Monday night's meeting before the council, the Building Industry Assn. took out several full-page newspaper ads, costing a total of $30,000, predicting an economic doomsday if the IDO is passed.

"As many as 130,000 jobs may be affected," the ads say. "Not just the 55,000 jobs in the construction trades are in jeopardy. So is the summer job your teen-ager has at the neighborhood nursery. And the part-time job at the corner convenience store that means the difference between comfort and charity for your retired aunt. Your next-door neighbor who runs a furniture store is in trouble, just like the newspaper delivery boys and girls, the carpet cleaners, and the telephone installers . . . ."

Developers also asked their employees to attend Monday night's meeting to protest the IDO, said Joann Johnson, aide to Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer.

Several developers said they posted signs at construction sites asking workers to attend the council meeting and warning that passage of the IDO could imperil their jobs, according to Johnson.

And prior to the meeting, which took place in Golden Hall before a throng of developers, construction workers and their families, a spontaneous press conference was called by a coalition of local business leaders to announce their opposition to the interim ordinance.

The phalanx of civic leaders, including Chamber of Commerce President Lee Grissom and the presidents of Home Federal Savings and Loan and Great American First Savings Bank, took the opportunity to inveigh against the IDO, reemphasizing the arguments that have become familiar countywide in debates about growth-control measures.

Ordinance Called Unfair

Among other things, they charged that the ordinance was unfair to the poor and to newlyweds trying to buy their first home and would drive the price of housing up astronomically. Sandy Goodkin, an authority on local real estate who works for the Pete Marwick Mitchell accounting firm, called the measure "racist," saying it was anti-retiree, anti-student and anti-blue collar.

Goodkin also said the proposed ordinance reflected a civic "hypocrisy."

"Why have a convention center, because you're going to bring a lot of strangers here who are going to fall in love with the place," he said, adding that the Super Bowl and possible hosting of the America's Cup by San Diego also would lure more residents.

Great American President Jim Schmidt, meanwhile, said he believed residents seeking growth restraints have a misconception about what causes it: "Many of them do believe that a new subdivision causes growth. That is not true. It is the result of growth."

And Richard Peiser, a professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the Unviersity of Southern California, called the plan to place a cap on building "unwise."

"In a nutshell, it is stupid planning," he said. "It represents a form of rationing" that will only drive the price of homes up.

In lieu of the IDO, the group proposed alternative solutions that have been tossed around City Hall for years. Changing zoning to conform with community plans and charging developers infrastructure fees for each home built in inner-city neighborhoods were among the ideas put forth.

Grissom said the coalition will fight the IDO and may file a lawsuit to block the measure if it passes. In fact, the business leaders vowed to fight any initiative designed to slow development in the city.

Slow-growth advocate Martin was the first to speak in favor of the IDO at Monday night's meeting. Like others, she urged that a building ban be imposed to protect canyons, wetlands and hillsides. If the IDO fails, Martin said her group is ready to collect signatures for a measure that would be even more drastic, limiting the total number of units built to 6,000 the first year, 5,000 the second year, and 4,000 every year thereafter.

Clifton D. Blevins, a local attorney, also urged passage of the IDO. "Healthy communities encourage healthy business. Unplanned communities result in the opposite."

After a dozen speakers spoke in favor of passing the IDO, Mayor Maureen O'Connor limited individual presentations to 20 seconds.

While the atmosphere at the meeting was almost carnival-like, with vendors selling popcorn and hot dogs, the issue at hand prompted sober shows of protest from the audience. Among the hundreds of people who flooded the hearing were construction workers carrying signs reading "I need my job" and a young girl wearing a sandwich board that said, "IDO No."

The genesis for the IDO showdown came during the mayoral campaign, when Mayor O'Connor said she heard consistent complaints from San Diegans that rampant growth had overwhelmed their schools, parks, streets and sewer systems. The city's current system of collecting fees from developers to pay for these necessary public amenities--called infrastructure--couldn't keep up with the construction of new housing.

Earlier this year, O'Connor appointed a 27-member citizens' task force to update the city's Growth Management Plan, which was passed in 1979.

Meanwhile, Robert H. Freilich, a Kansas City, Mo., consultant who helped the city draft the 1979 plan, was asked to review how well the plan was controlling growth.

Freilich's preliminary conclusions, contained in an April report to the Planning Department, sounded an alarm. He warned that the city's growth rate would translate into "serious and irrevocable detrimental effects" on San Diego neighborhoods.

Freilich said the city's growth rate was 2.5 times faster than projected in 1984, and he proposed setting yearly limits on how many housing units could be built in each neighborhood.

Statistics compiled by city administrators for Monday night's meeting showed that projections had allowed for 134,500 persons and 66,500 more housing units in San Diego between 1977 and 1985. In reality, the city added 182,571 people and 88,365 housing units, the statistics showed.

O'Connor and Councilman Ed Struiksma--potential opponents in the next mayoral race--immediately pounced on Freilich's conclusions, turning up the political heat on the growth issue by calling independent press conferences April 29. Each offered a modified version of the Freilich plan, and the matter was referred to the citizens' task force for further study.

The press conferences, however, caused a strong reaction from developers, who rushed into the city's building department to apply for a crush of permits. Statistics showed they have applied for 6,126 permits since April 29, city administrators say.

Because of the rush, the citizens' task force, in finishing its work last week, recommended the IDO be made retroactive to April 29. Slow-growth advocate Martin likened the spate of building permit applications to the "run on the banks" in the 1930s. "There is currently a run on building permits," she said.

Meanwhile, developers on the task force predicted the IDO, if passed, would immediately be tested in court because it does not protect the "vested rights" of builders who have received final approval for as-yet unbuilt residential units.

In a preliminary staff report to the council Monday night, City Atty. John Witt said there was "a risk" that the IDO could be overturned in court but urged council members not to take a "turtle-like posture" and become too defensive in considering the measure.

Consultant Freilich emphasized the idea is not a moratorium and said that the building permits already issued to date, combined with those allowed under IDO, would permit construction of 50,000 units in the next 18 months.

Work on the IDO has been so hasty that council members only received their copies of the proposed measure by courier on Saturday afternoon.

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