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Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007 | Pull into Jaalin Cheng’s driveway, walk down two flights of stairs and peer to your right underneath the patio of his Mission Hills home. By Christmastime, Cheng hopes the shady, open-air area there will become a home study.
But to encapsulate the space beneath his Douglas fir deck and to erect a small retaining wall under the home’s stairs, Cheng had to first gain approval from an unlikely agency — the Federal Aviation Administration.
Under new city of San Diego rules, the FAA will have to affirm that Cheng’s nearly subterranean project will not pose a potential threat to the 737s, charter jets and cargo planes that take off and land at Lindbergh Field more than a mile away.
“My architect called me … and we had a good cry and a good laugh about it at the same time,” said Cheng, a 30-year-old entrepreneur. “Both of us thought it was pretty ridiculous, given what we were doing.”
The prospect of Cheng’s project adding a new hazard to air traffic seems improbable, considering its location tucked in a canyon below Cheng’s existing home and far below some of the other hillside homes on his street.
But in a city still reeling from political consequences of the Sunroad Enterprises building, which was deemed a hazard to aviators at Montgomery Field, the pendulum has swung to the side of extreme caution.
“We’re just not going to have this kind of thing happen again,” said Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Now, Sanders is forcing homeowners and developers of all projects standing a certain height above and distance from local airports to notify the FAA before they can obtain building permits from the city of San Diego.
Under the rule, developers of construction projects that poke above a virtual diagonal line running from the base of local runways to points that are 20,000 feet away and 200 feet high would have to notify the FAA. All buildings 200 feet above the ground are also supposed to file.
Because Cheng’s home rests 246 feet above the airport on a slope in Mission Hills, he is forced to file because his project technically falls above the FAA’s 200 foot limit.
Sanders’ new edict is ensnaring smalltime home improvements all over town. With elevated mesas crisscrossing through San Diego and seven regional airports that imprint the cityscape with the impact zones, scores of modest construction projects are being impacted by the new rule.
“Literally anything in Point Loma, downtown, Mission Hills penetrates that slope,” said Kelly Broughton, the assistant director at the Development Services Department. “You could put up a wall on your property and already penetrate it.”
For example, the expansion of a 12-foot tall storage shed at a University Heights residence to 17 feet was reviewed by the FAA. The shed is three-and-a-half miles from Lindbergh Field, but is perched 320 feet above the airport, putting it above the agency’s virtually slope.
“It’s not something you would have checked for before Sunroad,” said local architect Lisa Castagnola, who is helping friends navigate the permitting process for the storage shed. “Now, if you’re building anywhere near an airport, you’ll always think about it.”
The Sunroad issue embroiled Sanders in the first scandal of his administration after his development officials failed to catch and stop the company from building an office tower 20 feet above the FAA height limit.
Sanders contends the Sunroad dispute would have been prevented had the city received assurances that the FAA approved of the development. Sunroad told the FAA in April 2006 that it was developing a tower that was 160 feet tall despite already obtaining permits from the city to construct a 180-foot building. The developer informed the FAA it intended to reach 180 feet only days before topping out at that height.
Notifying the FAA has been a longstanding prerequisite for professional builders who know they fall within the circumference of the rule.
“You’ve had to do this downtown for years. To me, it makes sense,” said Rick Lines, a manager at Aerius Mechanical, which has to file with the FAA when it constructs cranes to install air conditioning and heating systems on hotel and office buildings.
To those affected, the city’s handling of the Sunroad problem has swung too far on the side of caution, adding precautions for everyone that are too strict to compensate for an isolated problem.
“It sounds like a new headache for people in my situation,” said Derek Mimno, a Point Loma resident. He and his wife are adding two bedrooms to their current 24-foot-tall, two-bedroom home to make room for twin newborns and a three-year-old. Mimno blames Sanders for burdening property owners for something that was the mayor’s staff’s fault.
“The problem isn’t people adding two bedrooms on,” he said. “It’s the incompetent people in his office who aren’t doing their job.”
The Mimno’s architect filed a notice with the FAA on Aug. 13, receiving approval from the agency more than two weeks later.
For Cheng, an entrepreneur who moved into his home in 2003, the rule created confusion and generated new costs.
He estimated that it cost “hundreds of dollars” for his architect to submit the application, which includes finding the precise geographical coordinates of a project and mapping it out.
“Salerno Livingston is a very prominent firm, and when one of their principals is telling me ‘We’ve never seen this before’ and ‘We don’t know how long it’s going to take,’ it was a big concern,” Cheng said, referring to the architectural firm he hired for the project. “In retrospect, it only took us two days, but at the outset, we didn’t know and it was a tremendous amount of stress on us.”
Cheng said the city’s demands also created some uncertainty for his project’s timeline, as he said the Development Services Department warned that the FAA could take several weeks with its review.
Trudy Verdick, a local architect who is working on a 26-foot-tall addition to a Mission Hills home, said her clients already spent their budget to design the project before learning about the new rule. If the agency balked, Verdick could have been forced to redesign the entire project at the property owner’s expense.
But for the headaches it has caused the first few waves of applicants since the rule was phased in July 1, many of them said their fears were quelled once the FAA completed their review within a few days.
“The FAA has been really good about it,” Castagnola said. Her project was approved by the agency the same day it was proposed.
Broughton acknowledged there were complaints in the initial weeks. The architects who regularly handle smaller projects, he said, are discovering that the process is not too difficult to cope with. The challenge for his department will be to instruct inexperienced renovators about the new rule.
“The repeat customers who come in here aren’t going to have a problem, but the problems we’re going to run into are the one-time people who are just adding on to their property,” Broughton said.
Additionally, the city has since allowed several projects that are obviously not hazards — as in, they fall in the shadow of other structures — to be exempt from the requirement. But developers who claim to be exempt are financially and legally liable if the FAA later determines that their project is a danger to nearby planes.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who has been critical of Sanders’ handling of Sunroad, said he thought the new rule was a small sacrifice in order to make sure developments comply with the FAA’s orders.
“We’re now following the rules,” Aguirre said. “It’s an easy step to follow, and people will get the hang of it, but it would have caught something like Sunroad immediately.”
Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.