Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007 | In 2004, Earl Jentz didn’t like the high-rise condo development that was planned adjacent to one of his properties. Digging into the largesse he accumulated throughout his careers as a landlord, Realtor and engineer, Jentz fought City Hall. And he won.

Since then, Jentz, an avuncular Midwesterner who moved to Chula Vista in 1976, has continued his crusade, mounting campaign after campaign to block the pathway city officials have tried to pursue for development. Jentz says he isn’t inherently anti-development, but rather he sees his efforts as a battle he is waging to get “the people” a little more influence on the growth of their town.

As far as influence goes, it’s hard to match Jentz. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his causes — three ballot initiatives, two City Council candidates and a lawsuit challenging the city’s plans for westside development.

We sat down with Jentz, who has lived in Chula Vista since 1976, to find out if he’s getting his money’s worth.

You’ve become very involved in Chula Vista politics over the last few years. What sparked your interest?

It was a combination of factors. I was very involved in the school system, elementary school first, when my children were small, and then secondary school when my children got older … in Chula Vista and Bonita. My last child had graduated and I had worked as an editor at the Sweetwater Union High School District newsletter. That was very time-consuming and I kept working on that for a few years after my children.

When that finished up, there was a proposed project on H Street called Espanada that was adjoining my property on two sides. I didn’t really feel it was right for the community and that’s how I first got involved and I realized there needed to be more resident input at City Hall.

Since then, you haven’t just dabbled in politics, you’ve become a major player.

I appreciate the compliment, but I’m only one of many people. But I have been involved in the startup of two new community organizations, the Northwest Civic Association and the Southwest Chula Vista Civic Association. I’m pleased to say they’re autonomous at this point, they finance themselves, they have their own issues. I think it’s much better than it was before in terms of getting input, particularly from southwest, where there wasn’t really much input before.

The Espanada, which was comprised of two 198-foot-high condo towers, was to be the harbinger for denser development in Chula Vista’s westside before the City Council killed it. Your ballot initiatives capping building heights and restricting the use of eminent domain would also curb growth. You are suing to challenge the urban core specific plan, which serves as the roadmap for future growth in Chula Vista. It seems to me your pet issue is growth.

Those are important. But to me the issue is community input and community benefit. With the redevelopment, there needs to be a benefit to the community, not just to the city and not just to the businesses.

In my view, [the Espanada] negatively impacted the properties on Roosevelt Street, which is a quiet street and it was really difficult to have input at City Hall. We got involved with other groups. Crossroads II was a young group at that point too, but there weren’t any other groups. At that point the general plan was in process and there was a steering committee, but there weren’t community groups to give input.

What was your role in defeating the Espanada?

I was a factor, certainly … communicating with City Hall, supporting a different side of the issue through newspaper ads.

I’m not sure I was the only factor. There were a number of people who were supportive of a different height limit in that area. I think at some point the City Council people saw there might be a different alternative. But on what happened at the very end, I’m not very clear on what the factors were there.

You were spending a lot of money at the time. Did you tell Mayor Steve Padilla and council members that you would spend money to defeat them in the subsequent 2006 election if they endorsed the project?

No.

Publicly, we know you have spent more than $200,000 on ballot initiatives and City Council candidates, but we know you’ve spent a lot more than that in lawsuits, startup expenses for the grassroots groups, thousands of dollars in newspaper advertisements. What are you hoping to achieve by making these expenditures?

It all goes back to community input and community benefit.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars for that?

Mm-hmm.

That’s quite a lofty goal. Is there a political hero from which you draw inspiration for your expensive efforts?I’m not sure there’s a hero. I think it’s the atmosphere where I grew up. I grew up in a small community, Fenton, Iowa, where it was common for people to participate.

How much have you spent?

I don’t know. I haven’t kept track.

Seven figures?

No, not that much.

The ballot initiatives look like they shift power away from City Hall. What’s so bad about the professionals who manage and plan this city?

[The Espanada] was an eye opener. I think it showed me (the problems) were top-down. I don’t blame the planners. I think at that point in time there was input from developers and builders, but not from the community.

By profession you are a Realtor and a landlord. If Chula Vista undergoes the massive redevelopment that you fear, would that impact your ability to do business as a landlord on some of your smaller apartment complexes?

I don’t think so. Again, I think people have the wrong impression of me. There are many areas of the general plan and the Urban Specific Plan that are fine. People like to paint us against redevelopment, and that’s not really the case.

But eminent domain is a major tool for getting redevelopment done.

And it can still be done, but it would take approval of the people.

Some are concerned that by enacting these restrictions on development, land values will be depressed, you will buy up properties, and then one day the switch will flip and you’ll enjoy a very profitable windfall. They fear you’re doing this for a big payday down the line.

I think that’s a fantasy. My real goal is to give a voice to the people and to make sure there’s community benefit.

Do you continue to buy properties?

I haven’t bought very much recently. I bought one house, but I’m to the point now where I’m comfortable. I’m spending my time on the issues.

The most visible news to come out of City Hall recently is the Chargers stadium study, which said there are two viable sites in Chula Vista. Given the loads of cash you’ve poured into shaping the discussion on other city issues, where are you going to come down on the Chargers issue?

I haven’t really studied that issue or come to a personal decision. I am encouraged that the Chargers said they would put it to a vote of the people.

Will you become involved if a stadium proposition reaches the ballot?

I don’t see that at this point.

You want the city attorney to be elected. Why?It’s important that, with the bay front and possibility of the Chargers coming, there’s someone to keep an eye out on that. There’s a lot of temptation out there with that kind of money. An elected city attorney would be more responsible to the people.

If you read the mission statement on [the city of Chula Vista’s city attorney] website, the mission statement is to serve the City Council. It’s not for the people.

There is one difference between what we’re proposing and what San Diego has: Any lawsuits that are filed would have to be approved by the City Council.

That’s not necessarily the case in San Diego. Do you see San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre as being a model elected city attorney?

I think it’s good he raises a number of issues that are for the people. The way he goes about things are certainly not the way a lot of people would like to see. But there have been elected city officials in San Diego for 70-plus years and I don’t know if you can judge it by one city attorney.

Do you want to run for public office?

No.

What’s more satisfying about your role now than being an elected official?

I think we’re making progress in giving the people input but we’ve got a long ways to go yet.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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