For 50 years Little Italy has been busily transforming itself into one of downtown San Diego’s flagship neighborhoods. The community has grown on the back of a strong residential housing market and some canny planning by the city and Little Italy residents. It is often considered one of downtown San Diego’s success stories.

But, just as the neighborhood has gotten to its feet, members of the Little Italy Association are claiming that the community’s further development is about to be hobbled.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which has de-facto jurisdiction over land use in neighborhoods bordering the region’s 16 airports, has drawn up an initial land use plan for north Little Italy that minimizes what development will be allowed in a sizable chunk of the neighborhood. That’s got residents and community leaders fuming.

“It’s beyond absurd,” said Marco Limandri, executive director of the Little Italy Association. “It’s as if they’re making these recommendations living in Kansas.”

The airport authority is currently updating the plan that sets land use rules for neighborhoods around the region’s airports, a process that could have a tangible impact on the growth of neighborhoods all around the San Diego County. That’s especially true in showcase neighborhoods such as Little Italy, which is located directly under a landing airplane’s path.

The current draft report by the airport authority essentially outlaws the construction of condos or any other residential developments on the northern stretch of Little Italy, from Date Street to Laurel.

The airport authority said the new land use limitations are designed to protect the people who live and work in neighborhoods close to the airport. They said the proposed new rules for Little Italy are necessary to limit the construction of residential developments in areas that are excessively noisy and are dangerously close to where planes are constantly landing and taking off.

But critics of the airport authority’s report said the airport authority’s plans for north Little Italy will effectively stagnate almost one-third of a vibrant and growing neighborhood.

“Are they trying to take us back to 50 years ago? We are very upset about it,” said Tom Fat, a long-time Little Italy resident and the community’s point man in the land use discussion.

Fat – who had his own designs on developing residential properties in the land in question – said neighborhood representatives were floored when they saw the initial report. The airport authority’s recommendations are short-sighted and bureaucratic, he said, and fail to take into account the impact of limiting development in an area like Little Italy.

The airport authority has its reasons for setting out what can and cannot be built around the region’s airports. One big reason is noise.

It’s no surprise to anyone strolling through Bankers Hill or Ocean Beach that airplanes landing and taking off are extremely noisy, but the airport authority has been finding out exactly how noisy living next to an airport can be. For several months, the airport authority has been testing decibel levels in 26 locations around Lindbergh Field using microphones placed atop 20-foot poles.

What they found was that Little Italy’s northern end is a very loud place to start building condos, said Dan Frazee, who headed up the acoustic experiments. The microphone in Little Italy has been picking up very high background noise levels, Frazee said – about 65 decibels on average. When there’s a plane overhead, however, Frazee said the levels go up to above 100 decibels, which he said would be extremely loud even in a well-insulated house or office.

Angela Shafer-Payne, vice president of strategic planning at the airport authority said that some areas around airports are simply unsafe for new residential developments, both because they are too noisy and too close to the flight path.

“Aircraft do come out of the sky, and not always on a runway,” Shafer-Payne said. “We have an obligation to protect people and property in the immediate vicinity surrounding airports.”

Shafer-Payne said the airport authority is only concerned with ensuring that the neighborhoods around the airport are safe for the people that live there. Certain land uses are not safe in some areas, she said, which is why the draft plan calls for limits on what can and can’t be built in places like north Little Italy.

But Fat and others said that the limitations the airport authority suggested in its draft report are unworkable for the Little Italy community. Fat suggested simply mandating stricter building codes for any new developments as an alternative.

Allowing developers to build in the area, but by forcing them to take more stringent efforts to insulate their buildings from the noise of the airport, Fat said, would be a workable compromise between the Little Italy Association and the airport authority. Such a compromise would be simple to implement, Fat said, and would be far better than simply banning residential development outright.

Shafer-Payne said no options are off the bargaining table at this point, and that the airport authority is aware of the concerns of the Little Italy community.

“Compatibility plans are unique to every airport, and they do take into consideration unique circumstances surrounding each airport,” Shafer-Payne said. “The board will absolutely consider the fact that Little Italy is a thriving community and that they do have plans to develop.”

The second version of the draft Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan is currently being worked on by the airport authority in conjunction with a team of community representatives. Shafer-Payne said the next draft is still a few months away as the airport authority works to iron out the problems in Little Italy and elsewhere

Please contact Will Carless directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

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