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Tuesday, 26 days before 2007 was set to begin, the City Council voted 7-1 to approve a framework for the city’s housing development covering the years 2005 to 2010.

The framework, the housing element of the city’s general plan, outlines city policy about housing issues like design consistency, parking requirements, affordable-housing efforts and density goals.

The plan opens the possibility of simplifying the city’s building regulations, calling on planners to consider things like easing the number of parking spots required for affordable housing units or speeding up review of proposed projects.

After missing a state deadline of June 30, 2005 (which already included a year’s extension), the city started feeling pressure to get this plan approved before an approaching end-of-year deadline for $4 million in state grants for housing and transportation programs.

Councilwoman Donna Frye voted against the plan, expressing her discomfort with what she considered out-of-date environmental and public safety analyses.

After hearing over an hour of public comment, many council members said they understood the concerns raised but wanted to take advantage of the grant monies available – and move on to start planning the next housing element for 2011-2015.

Some community groups fear the plan could set the stage to allow developers more leeway to building densely in neighborhoods not historically zoned for denser development. They also worry that when Mayor Jerry Sanders and his staff talk about “streamlining” the development planning process, a goal highlighted in the housing element, they are handing more control to developers.

Scott Molloy, public policy advocate for the Building Industry Association, said streamlining will simply eliminate the redundancies in the planning process. He said regulations in the California Environmental Quality Act and other processes will continue to allow for the public input that shapes proposed development.

But Leo Wilson, chair of the Community Planners Committee, disagreed.

“They’re using this as sort of an excuse for deregulation,” Wilson said of the city’s planners. The CPC voted 22-4 against supporting the element earlier this year.

Another critic was City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who sent a memo to the mayor and City Council members Monday evening arguing that the housing element fails to adequately address San Diego’s affordable-housing crisis. Aguirre said the plan did not address the statutory requirements for such a plan. His testimony to that effect at the council meeting Tuesday was met with frustration from several council members, who said they were upset that the legal opinion was not provided to them until a day before the scheduled vote.

“[The plan] has something to dislike for everyone,” said Tom Mullaney, president of Friends of San Diego. “It’s basically a builder’s dream – it takes away the kind of community input that challenges builders.”

Bill Anderson, director of the city’s planning department, said some of the language that was in previous versions of the document had been changed to address similar concerns by the city’s planning commissioners. And he emphasized that the housing element has to be broad enough to apply to urban, suburban and coastal areas in the city – specific cases will come under specific regulation, her said.

KELLY BENNETT

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