Council Approves Sensitive Land Measure for Ballot

Times Staff Writer

In a move that climaxed months of sometimes-heated debate, the San Diego City Council Tuesday night adopted a proposal that, if approved by voters this fall, would put tight controls on what developers can build on wetlands, canyons, hillsides and flood plains.

The proposal, called the sensitive lands measure, will be part of an overall growth mangement package that council members are assembling in public hearings before placement on the Nov. 8 ballot. The package is aimed at updating the city’s Growth Management Plan, widely recognized as outdated, and at responding to increasing demands from San Diegans to put the brakes on urban development.

That sentiment has already spawned a citizen-inspired measure that has qualified for the November ballot. Called the Quality of Life Initiative, it would place severe restrictions on construction in San Diego by limiting developers to as few as 4,000 new homes, apartments or condominiums a year unless local government takes action to ease traffic congestion, improve air quality and build a secondary sewage treatment plant.

Mayor Maureen O’Connor and council colleagues are hoping that their growth management package will win more votes than the Quality of Life Initiative. And they consider the sensitive lands provision to be a key component in the package.


As adopted during hearings Monday and Tuesday, the sensitive lands provision would severely restrict developers from building on natural hillsides with slopes of 25% or steeper. The restrictions say, for example, that a developer whose parcel of land is 75% hillside would only be able to “encroach” on 10% of those slopes. The rest of the land would have to remain undisturbed. A developer owning a parcel that is all slope would be restricted to building on 20% of his land.

That formula has been in force since last year, when the council adopted a temporary measure to keep development off sensitive lands until the growth package could be finished. Such restrictions had never before been placed on hillsides, which includes a good deal of the undeveloped land remaining in San Diego.

Developers Tuesday reacted unhappily to the hillside restrictions and other provisions of the sensitive lands proposal.

“I think it’s highly punitive,” said Stephen T. Coury, a spokesman for the Building Industry Assn. “It constitutes harassment of property owners. Trying to get this procedure down is like trying to work a Rubic’s Cube blindfolded.”

Objections by Builders

Coury claimed the proposal has such a broad definition of sensitive lands that it includes most of the undeveloped property left in the city, including Otay Mesa and the Sorrento Valley area.

Coury also objected to a provision that would bar sand and gravel removal from wetlands areas. Although such operations would be allowed to continue on hillsides, banning it from the wetlands would mean that developers would not have as ready a supply of cheap local building materials, he said.

Environmentalists weren’t overjoyed with the council’s work on the sensitive lands provision, either. Kathy Giles, a Sierra Club member monitoring Tuesday’s meeting, said she was concerned about some of the “loopholes” written into the measure.


One of the loopholes, Giles said, was the council’s decision to grant exclusions to the sensitive lands measure on a two-thirds vote of the council. That means that a developer could avoid provisions of the measure by getting six of the nine council members to go along with his project.

Giles said environmentalists were hoping for council approval of a so-called “super majority” of at least seven votes.

Another loophole for developers, according to Giles, allows for roads and public parks to be built on sensitive lands.

“Developers love to . . . put the streets and the parks in sensitive lands so it forces the politicians to choose between the streets and the sensitive lands,” Giles said.


The impetus for the sensitive lands provision originally came from San Diegans for Managed Growth, which earlier this year unsuccessfully tried to gather enough signatures for a ballot measure of its own. After their efforts failed, the leaders of the group asked if the provision could be included in the council’s growth management package.

The sensitive lands measure first went to a citizens panel appointed by O’Connor to thrash out the details, then was forwarded to the council for final review.

But the measure triggered a bitter battle between environmentalists and developers over how much protection should be allowed. At one point in May, the environmentalists said that developers had shot the proposal so full of loopholes that it was ineffective.