Friday, October 14, 2005 | Not much gets past Katheryn Rhodes. The enterprising civil engineer has fashioned herself as something of a guardian of the historic neighborhood of La Playa where she lives. Through her Web site, www.laplayaheritage.com, Rhodes keeps an eagle eye on any development planned for her leafy corner of Point Loma.
From 1926 to 2003, the city of San Diego published a weekly bulletin in a local newspaper that listed, by area, all applications made for building permits. For the last two years, Rhodes says she has had to eke that information out of the city’s Development Services Department.
“What if there’s a condo unit going up right next to your house?” said Rhodes. “You won’t know about it, you won’t know anything about it.”
The Development Services Department is quick to defend itself. A spokeswoman for the department pointed out that the vast majority of what was once published as the city bulletin can now be found on the city’s Web site.
Gary Halbert, the director of the department, said his team gave a lot of thought to the issue and decided that using the city’s Web site would increase public access to permit information.
Halbert also pointed out that there are many different types of permits, from standard building permits that are required, for example, to build an extra room on the side of a building, to discretionary permits, which always require some sort of public hearing. The latter, he said, are always published on the city’s Web site. He’s not sure if they are still published in the newspaper.
A city manager’s report in March 2003 concluded that publishing such information on the Web site and not a newspaper would “increase public access to City government and decrease public cost for such access.”
But Rhodes and her neighbors disagree.
They point to an example that they say exemplifies problems with the department’s current attitude toward disseminating information about permit applications.
Paul and Judith White live on Lawrence Street. A year ago, their next door neighbor sold his property to a developer. Paul White, an architect by trade, contacted his former neighbor and was told that the developer planned to replace the single family home with six condos.
Worried that such a development would drastically change the character of his neighborhood – not to mention that it would block his views – White nevertheless assumed he would receive notice of the development in good time to rally his neighbors to object to it.
“We sort of sat back, waiting for a notice to be posted or something in the mail, so that we could see what was going on,” said White. “We were not informed until Katheryn (Rhodes) told us that this thing had already been passed and it was on the fast track.”
He presumed the city would make good on its own requirements for publication. At the very least, White knew development services project managers were required by the city’s municipal code to inform residents within 300 feet of a proposed construction project.
White says he was wrong on both counts.
He says he only learned that Development Services staff had received a building permit application and would be making a decision on the project next door when his wife happened to bump into Rhodes one morning.
Rhodes had been hard at work. Frustrated that she could not find information on building permit applications on the city’s Web site, she had been giving testimony before the City Council and had been pestering the top brass at Development Services to make this information available to the general public.
After a lot of complaining, Rhodes said she eventually convinced the department to begin e-mailing out the building permit reports.
It was through one of these reports, she said, that she found the information relating to the project next door to the White family. She relayed the information to Judith White, who immediately contacted the manager of the project, Daniel Stricker. Paul White said Stricker told him the officials had simply “forgotten” to mail the notices out.
Stricker puts it another way.
“I wouldn’t say we forgot,” he said, “but it’s certainly the nature of this project that the notices didn’t go out.”
However, Stricker said as soon as the issue was brought to his attention, a new hearing was arranged for concerned neighbors. The project still has a number of issues that need to be resolved, he said, and has not been finalized.
Rhodes said it’s only through her careful reading of the reports she was sent by Development Services that the error was caught.
Moreover, while Rhodes was one of the first people on the e-mail list for building permit information, she said the documents she was e-mailed (in PDF format) were formatted improperly so that they were almost illegible.
In addition, Rhodes said, she was unable to perform a search of the long lists of permit applications to find the information she was looking for. Instead, Rhodes said she manually cut and pasted the information into a spreadsheet and then searched through it.
But it’s not time to blast Development Services just yet.
That the department published comprehensive lists of building permit applications in a newspaper for almost 80 years seems to be an example of San Diego stepping beyond the mark of what is expected of it.
“I have never heard of that, and I’ve been practicing in this field for 47 years,” said Dan Curtin, one of the foremost experts on this aspect of municipal law in California. “There’s nothing in the Brown Act or anything in the Public Records Act that says they have to be published.”
That view is echoed by Larry Badiner, director of the city of San Francisco’s Planning Department. He said very few people are really interested in reading the legal notices in the local newspaper anyway, even when they concern large-scale projects. For standard building permits, he said, there would simply be no point in publishing them.
“If we had to publish every building permit that came through, forget it” he said.
When that happens, Rhodes and other neighborhood watchdogs and detectives will presumably let out a long sigh of relief, content that they will be able to easily spot any developers who may spoil their way of life.
On a recent sunny morning, the house-proud San Diegan looked out over her balcony toward the downtown skyline.
“It would just be a shame if they crowded this neighborhood with condos as far as the eye could see,” she said. “It would be such a shame.”
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