I am quite amazed by the hullabaloo over the need for a report to justify that approval of superstores in the city will indeed bring economic value to San Diegans. The origin of this nonsense comes from the city’s Independent Budget Analyst (IBA), which hypothesized that the findings of a development permit “may constitute a de facto ban on superstore development.” An illustration of this concern by the IBA is the following finding in the proposed superstore ordinance: “The superstore will not adversely affect the city’s neighborhood and small businesses.”
Presumably any impact that redistributes sales is a negative impact on existing business. This argument has been used repeatedly in the media, Walmart advertisements, Union-Tribune editorial and mayoral veto.
However, the analysis is based on a faulty reading of the planning process, and the regulations governing development. The “adversely affect” standard is used throughout the Municipal Code in a comprehensive manner to capture the overall (positive and negative) impacts of an approval, and to give decision-makers the necessary authority to ensure that developments will have a net positive affect on the community.
In the context of planning and development, I counted over 25 uses of the term “adversely affect” in the San Diego Municipal Code. If we were to follow the IBA’s logic, we have 25 development bans in the city.
Let me illustrate.
The following sections of the Municipal Code require a finding that development will “not have an adverse affect” on any applicable land-use plans:
• All variances (Art 6 Div 8)
• All planned development permits (Art 6 Div 6)
• All coastal permits (Art 6 Div 2)
• All conditional use permits (Art 6 Div 3)
• All neighborhood development permits (Art 6 Div 4)
One could argue that any development that does not meet the land-use plan goals will be a de facto ban. Here are some goals in the Economic Prosperity Element of the General Plan:
• Goal: Economically healthy neighborhood and community commercial areas that are easily accessible to residents. (pg. EP-13)
• Promote economically vital neighborhood commercial districts that foster small business enterprises and entrepreneurship. (Policy EP-B6)
• Retain the city’s existing neighborhood commercial activities and develop new commercial activities within walking distance of residential areas, unless proven infeasible. (Policy EP-B8)
How can a supercenter possibly not have an “adverse affect” on the above land-use plan goals and policies?
Some may argue that the condition imposed on superstores is subjective, ambiguous and “to the eye of the beholder.” I disagree, since specific and objective findings have to be made, either in the report, or in the evidence submitted by the applicant, or the public during public review. Nevertheless, the fairness of the IBA opinion rests on the standards acceptable in the current code.
Here is an “adverse affect” condition scattered through the Municipal Code that is a required finding for San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Golden Hill, and Mid-City planned districts: “The proposed use … will not adversely affect other property in the vicinity.”
Is there any development project that does not adversely impact some neighbor?
And, here’s another example of an “adverse affect” finding in the downtown regulations. With regard to social service institutions, the Centre City Planned District Ordinance requires the following finding: The institution or facility, due to its unique operations or uses, will not adversely impact the surrounding neighborhood. If the de facto ban argument were correct, there would be no social services or providers for the homeless downtown.
The Small Business and Neighborhood Protection Ordinance will disclose relevant information that can be used in comprehensively evaluating the merits of a superstore project. The IBA is wrong in selectively calling this proposal a “de facto ban” when every development permit (including those for large retail establishments) has to undergo very similar processes and tests. In reality this is a political process with the decision-makers having the appropriate tools to make informed decisions that benefit the community.
Murtaza Baxamusa lives in La Jolla and is the Research and Policy Director for the Center on Policy Initiatives.