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Friday, November 11, 2005 | San Diego’s city attorney and a local state assemblywoman urged the city Thursday to apply a state environmental law when approving the conversion of apartment complexes into condominium buildings.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Assemblywoman Lori Saldana said the city has not paid attention to the strain on infrastructure such as roads, parking, water and sewer during the recent condo conversion boom.
“We want to make sure that our neighborhoods are up to the task of these condo conversions,” said Saldana, whose legislative district includes four of the five city neighborhoods containing the greatest number of converted units.
Over a 16-month period ending this June, the city received applications to convert 11,422 for-rent apartment units into for-sale condos. The lawmakers said that an impact study needs to be carried out to evaluate the cumulative effect of the conversions.
“They have not been assessing the physical and fiscal impact on our community of these many condo conversions,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre issued a 25-page legal opinion to that effect, refuting the city’s practice of exempting condo conversion projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires a study of how developments will be impacting nearby resources and quality of life. He said his opinion requires the city’s planning and development services departments, which handle conversions jointly, to require CEQA studies of conversion applicants.
There are currently 78 legal challenges to the city’s handling of condo conversions without going through CEQA reviews, Aguirre said. Cory Briggs, the attorney filing the complaints, said the increased noise, water and sewage impacts associated with the conversions were clearly environmental impacts that needed to be reviewed.
Aguirre wouldn’t name other California cities that were reviewing condo conversions with CEQA standards, but he said that fact didn’t mean requiring the review wasn’t the law. He said catching the problem now would prevent the city from going down the same path as its handling of the pension system, wastewater rates and secondary wastewater treatment.
“There’s a pattern of noncompliance with the law,” Aguirre said. “What we’re trying to do here is avoid a much larger problem.”
While several outside real estate specialists were skeptical of Aguirre’s interpretation of the law, Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders will ultimately have the oversight of the city management’s day-to-day operations when the city transitions to a strong-mayor form of governance on Jan. 3. Sanders takes office Dec. 5.
Aguirre said applying CEQA to conversion applications was a legal decision that he could require unilaterally as the elected city attorney.
“The city’s departments are required to follow the city attorney’s legal determinations,” he said.
Sanders would not comment on whether he agreed with Aguirre’s interpretation of the City Charter in this case.
The mayor-elect did say through a press statement that he wanted to address the impacts of condo conversions after taking office.
“We need to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between environmental protection and efforts to increase the supply of affordable, entry level, for-sale housing,” he said in the statement. “I will reserve judgment until I have had an opportunity to review the proposal more thoroughly.”
San Diego Housing Federation Executive Director Tom Scott agreed that not a lot was known about how well the required homeowners associations do mitigating the impacts of conversions.
“How are six families going to agree on assessing themselves to maintain that property?” he said. “It’s a new phenomenon, so there’s not a lot of evidence.”
Several professionals close to the field of condo conversions maintained that property use changes of that sort are exempt from CEQA. Nothing in Aguirre’s opinion substantiates a reason to change that, said Bob Kevane, a member of the San Diego Association of Realtors’ board of directors.
Aguirre said that the cumulative report he called for would find out whether or not case-by-case CEQA studies would be necessary. But he contended that there was “obviously an impact” made by the more-than-10,000 converted units, the bulk of which are in Council Districts 2 and 3.
Lou Galuppo, the director of residential real estate at the University of San Diego’s Moores-Burnham Center for Real Estate, said that he disagreed with Aguirre’s legal opinion that condo conversions require CEQA studies.
“There isn’t enough significant impact to actually cause a project to go under environmental review,” Galuppo said.
Requiring such studies for every application could prolong the usual 12- to 18-month wait for city approval by six months or more, Galuppo said. The reviews will also cause the units’ prices to balloon unnecessarily, especially the smaller buildings with fewer units to convert, he said.
“In the end, it would be economically unfeasible to convert these units,” said Galuppo, a land-use attorney.
Galuppo and others did agree that a city-sponsored study to discover the real impacts of the conversion boom may be warranted.
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