In the first test of its commitment to newly written protections for environmentally sensitive lands, the San Diego City Council on Wednesday blocked a move to exempt more than 18,000 homes from standards intended to safeguard the city's hillsides, canyons, wetlands and flood plains from development.
In a second vote, the council approved the same exemptions for an unspecified number of homes--no more than 2,187, city planners said--that had nearly worked their way through the city's planning process by July 15.
The two decisions, which came on the third day of council votes on a measure protecting environmentally sensitive lands that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot, cheered environmentalists and left building industry representatives dejected.
'Developers Are Not Winning'
"The developers are not winning this at all. They're taking some tough knocks here," Mayor Maureen O'Connor said.
"I was very pleased that the votes were not there" for the proposal to exempt 18,095 homes from the measure, added Kathy Giles, a Sierra Club representative who is monitoring the council hearings.
Stephen Coury, spokesman for the Building Industry Assn., said that the group had no position on Wednesday's vote because it pitted some large residential developments against others.
But Coury added that "we think all of these sensitive lands provisions are a mugging of the building industry and are going to have a severe economic impact on the city."
The council is in the midst of a week of crucial votes on a proposed growth management plan that will govern the city's development into the next century. The sensitive lands provisions and a separate document that would cap home building will compete on the fall ballot with a similar, but generally more stringent, plan written by a citizens' group.
This week, the council approved language tightly restricting development on hillsides and wetlands and in flood plains, and established a provision requiring six council members' votes to grant an exemption from the standards.
Wednesday, District 5 Councilman Ed Struiksma proposed the first wholesale exemption to the plan, arguing that 17 developers seeking "development agreements" with the council be exempted from the environmental regulations.
The agreements, which are contracts under which a builder agrees to build schools, roads, parks and other public facilities in return for guaranteed construction schedules, cover 18,095 homes, according to Assistant Planning Director Michael Stepner.
Struiksma argued that because council inaction on an overall development agreement policy has delayed signing of the contracts for as long as two years, the council is obligated to exempt those homes from the provisions it is approving this week.
"All I'm trying to do is ensure that the playing field we have been laboring on for two years . . . remains level," he said. "Had it not been for our inaction, these issues would have already been acted on, up or down, one way or another."
O'Connor and council members Bob Filner and Abbe Wolfsheimer strongly opposed the move, saying that approval would thwart the protections the council has labored to establish.
"I find this amendment absolutely incredible, exempting--when we are not required to--over 18,000 units from the sensitive lands" initiative, Filner said.
O'Connor told Struiksma that the developers could petition the council under the newly established exemption process and seek the six votes needed to avoid the restrictions. The mayor agreed that she feels a "moral obligation" to five projects that already have received tentative approval from the council and are due back for final approval in September.
O'Connor said in an interview that she would vote to exempt the five--Miramar Ranch North, Sunburst Scripps, Scripps Eastview, Tierrasanta Norte and River Walk, which total 7,058 homes--if such hearings are held.
If approved, the exempted homes would have been added to the 17,862 homes that planners said have a "vested" exemption from the environmental standards because their builders have already crossed a threshold in the planning process.
But the council turned down Struiksma's motion, 6-3, with only council members Bruce Henderson and Judy McCarty joining Struiksma.
The council looked more kindly on Councilman Ron Roberts' proposal to exempt homes that had not received a final building permit before July 15, but had won all other permits necessary to build. Such permits include permission to build on hillsides and in planned residential developments.
"They've done everything short of pulling a building permit," Roberts said. "Not one of the things, not some of the things, but all of the things. It's absolutely a fairness issue."
City planners said that there are 2,187 homes in that category, but most are not scheduled to be built on environmentally sensitive lands, making it likely that only several hundred of them will be exempted from the provisions.
The council approved the exemption by a 6-3 vote, with O'Connor, Filner and Wolfsheimer in opposition.