The neighborhood of Kearny Mesa has gotten a new resident — a 180-foot office tower that has created a flight hazard, the first major political crisis for San Diego’s mayor and a showcase for the ups and downs of the fiery city attorney.
Sunroad Enterprises constructed the building that will be the first in a collection of towers near the Montgomery Field municipal airport in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego.
The building, known as Sunroad Centrum 1, has been the subject of intense political and legal debate in the past year after the Federal Aviation Administration decided that the structure posed a hazard to the small planes that land at the airport when Santa Ana winds gust up and clouds hang low, a weather condition that exists less than 1 percent of the time in San Diego. The vast majority of the time, planes land at Montgomery Field from the east. But if winds come from the east and stormy weather approaches, planes must circle north — where the Sunroad building stands — or south over a residential neighborhood.
In December 2006, City Attorney Mike Aguirre sued Sunroad, seeking the removal of the top two floors because the tower presented a public nuisance. Subsequently, the company filed a countersuit claiming the city improperly granted the project a building permit for 180 feet and that the local government would be on the hook for the $40 million building if a court determined it had to be lowered.
Beginning in June 2006, the federal and state agencies repeatedly told the city of San Diego that the building — if completed as Sunroad planned — would violate the FAA’s height limit. The city issued an order to halt construction on the top 20 feet of the building, but Mayor Jerry Sanders requested that it be modified in December so the developer could weatherize the building.
But to weatherize the building, Sunroad’s workers ended up mostly completing construction of it.
The mayor also began working separately to resolve the controversy outside of the lawsuit. Sanders’ aides lobbied federal officials to change flight paths at Montgomery Field to accommodate the developer’s nearby office building. Sunroad’s experts played a role in crafting the city’s efforts to present alternatives to accommodate the developer to the FAA. The mayor’s office also entertained several settlement offers without sharing them with the city attorney.
This, among other things, drove a wedge between Sanders and Aguirre.
As he first began to learn about the Sunroad tower and the FAA’s warnings, the city attorney became convinced that something untoward—if not illegal—had occurred. In January 2007, he held a news conference in which he publicly asked that federal prosecutors look into what made city officials allow the building’s construction to continue. A few days later, he publicly accused Jim Waring, the mayor’s land-use czar, of “corruption.”
In April 2006, Aguirre filed 11 misdemeanor criminal charges against Tom Story, a vice president with Sunroad who had once served as a top aide to former Mayor Dick Murphy. Aguirre accused Story of violating city laws that prohibit former city officials from lobbying the city for a specific period of time after they leave city service. The law also prohibits city officials from lobbying on behalf of a project they may have worked with during their time with the city.
The charges came after Police Chief Bill Lansdowne had refused to immediately carry out a search warrant of the Sunroad headquarters that Aguirre had persuaded a judge to sign. The mayor backed his police chief’s decision not to serve the search warrant and the issue became a major point of contention between Sanders and Aguirre.
Soon, the criminal case became a debacle for Aguirre. In his pursuit of an ethical violation against Story, Aguirre ran into ethical problems of his own. The City Attorney’s Office was thrown off the prosecution of Story in May when a judge found that Aguirre had gained unfair leverage against Sunroad by failing to maintain an ethical barrier between his civil lawsuit against the company and criminal prosecution against Story. Aguirre is appealing the ruling.
But Aguirre has continued to level charges that unethical conduct took place in the dealings between Sunroad and the city. He accused Sanders of cutting positions from the city attorney’s budget because Aguirre continued to harp on the mayor’s handling of the situation. Aguirre also referred to the $3,600 in campaign contributions Sunroad officials donated to Sanders in his 2005 run for mayor.
On June 7, Aguirre’ criticism of the mayor escalated to new heights when he amounted Sanders’ management of the issue to corruption. Sanders has since tried to clear his name in this regard by asking the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate his role in the saga.
After months of wrangling, the two officials now stand united requesting the company to stop work on all aspects of the project and to immediately lower the office tower to 160 feet. But despite their newfound agreement, one thing remains unclear: How, exactly, would engineers and architects lower the building?
A spokesman for the mayor shrugged off the dilemma saying Sunroad officials should take a chainsaw and blowtorch to it.
But, like the politics, legal dilemmas and personality conflicts involved in the issue, it’s far more complicated than that.