For today, let’s leave discussion of societal effects when the rule of law is not applied fairly and equitably to those at dinner parties or in sociology classes. The following case in point underscores the question of whether current city of San Diego government really supports its own City of Villages initiative.

The “code” here is the Land Development Code regulating things such as land use designations and structural setbacks. The LDC was updated in recent years to implement structural design and health and safety advances, and to reflect changes documented in the city’s General Plan and localized Community Plans. The city’s own City of Villages initiative was to rely heavily on the updated code. Many of us were assured, and thus we assured others, the city would use the code in directing development in its Pilot Villages.

Just over a week ago, local North Park community members were surprised at seeing a long standing structure gone; demolished and graded in two days. Questions led to outrage upon learning an enlarged new structure is being built on the old footprint in conflict with current LDC zoning and without required public revue. To be clear, the nature of the business, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, is not at issue. The permit process that disregarded the intent of the code and circumvented the community is.

The site of the KFC redevelopment. Photo: Olaina Anderson

Under the current LDC the old building was deemed a “previously conforming” structure. The structure had set back from the street with all parking located along its University Avenue frontage. This did not conform with “CN-1” zoning requirements critical in implementing the intended pedestrian oriented nature of the district as directed in the Community Plan, and the North Park Pilot Village initiative adopted by the community and the city. Every other building in the “Commercial Node” is built to the street wall in conformance with the zoning.

What went wrong?

The city permitted complete demolition and reconstruction of a new building in conflict with the obvious intent of the code. The LDC conspicuously addresses reconstruction of previously conforming structures only where loss is due to fire, natural disaster, or act of public enemy. Voluntary demolition by default is subject to the regulations on new construction.

Instead the project was granted “exception” under a statute pertaining to “Maintenance, Repair, or Alteration of Previously Conforming Structures.” While intent may be an area subject to legal wrangling, what is not is the fact that the community review process mandated under this exception was not done. Add to that allowance for expansion under another statute not applicable if the property has benefited from any “other property development exception” and, well, you get the picture.

What does this convey regarding the city’s support of the City of Villages initiative? From varied sources, city response to date is that the permit process complied with the code and that this is “done all the time.” The city attorney has yet to reply to community and local business improvement district requests for review of this permit process for proper interpretation and application of the LDC.

Of interest to all in San Diego’s communities, not just those in pilot villages or commercial districts, should be the city attorney’s position on the legality of the city’s actions. This could be precedent either leading to a consistent and equitable application of the code or to open season on the demolition and rebuilding of previously conforming structures without concern for compliance with setback requirements, or perhaps land uses, and then maybe …


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