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Statement: “Look, the community plan was a contract as far as I could see,” Mayor Bob Filner said at a Jan. 24 public hearing on One Paseo, a proposed mix-use development in Carmel Valley.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis:Mayor Bob Filner isn’t among the supporters of a proposed 23-acre mixed-use development in Carmel Valley.

He made that clear at a Jan. 24 public hearing about the fate of One Paseo, a proposed $650 million project that would add a dense commercial and residential area to the suburb.

The parcel, per the community plan, is zoned for 500,000 square feet of office space. The initial One Paseo proposal envisioned 2.1 million square feet of development spread across multiple uses. The project’s developers, Kilroy Realty, have since scaled down the project to 1.4 million square feet.

Filner didn’t appreciate the group’s initial approach.

“I didn’t understand how anybody who said they respected the community starts off with four times what the community plan says,” he said at the public hearing. “I don’t understand how you start with that.”

After all, the mayor said, the community plan can be considered a contract and it shouldn’t be violated without good reason.

We wanted to probe Filner’s reference to community plans as contracts with residents checking because there’s rarely discussion of the documents’ relative power or what it takes to amend one.

In San Diego, community plans consist of detailed land-use designations and recommendations. They may specifically refer to neighborhood landmarks, transportation networks and more.

San Diego’s community plans operate as components of the city’s general plan. The general plan is already a hulking document, so each neighborhood’s specific concerns are contained instead in the community plans.

The City Council vets each community plan. Once a community plan is adopted, projects are considered in accordance with the city’s official land use plan if they comply with the community plan covering their location.

That means a given project isn’t supposed to receive permits until the city’s Development Services Department deems it consistent with its community plan.

But the city’s municipal code lays out a clear path for developers to seek a community plan amendment if their project conflicts with the existing document.

Proposed developments can also seek variances, or smaller exceptions, from a community plan if the property in question faces special circumstances such as size, shape and topography that would keep it from enjoying the same designations of neighboring properties.

Variance requests are reviewed by city staff and decided on by a hearing officer. Appeals can be made to the citywide planning commission.

Community plans, then, are extensions of the city’s general plan.

But are they contracts?

There’s a clearly defined process by which planners and developers can seek changes to a community plan to allow for specific projects but the plan itself isn’t a formal contract.

Community planning leaders and local land-use attorneys agree on that. They said the spirit of Filner’s assessment is accurate but it doesn’t meet the technical definition of a contract.

Michael Stepner, a former city planning director, described it this way: “By a council adoption of a community plan it says we’re going to follow policies about the growth of the particular area. It’s more of an ethical thing and a moral thing than a legal thing.”

Land-use attorney Omar Passons, who serves on the North Park Planning Committee, noted a complication: “Of course, the nuance is if you’ve got a community plan that’s 30 years old, the community plan might not comport with what the people of that community actually want for themselves,” Passons said.

That means anyone who moved to the community after its plan was last updated, or who was too young participate at the time, didn’t get a chance to weigh in.

We decided Filner’s statement deserves a “mostly true” rating because while community plans aren’t technically contracts, they are agreements.

We define a “mostly true” claim as one that is accurate but missing an important nuance. That applies here because if one simply defines a contract as an understanding between two or more parties, Filner’s statement is correct.

But a community plan isn’t a formal contract. Unlike most contracts, community plans are regularly amended through a formal process. However, in the absence of an amendment or variance, community plans dictate the land use policies of a given area.

Community plans outline the city’s land-use policies but they are ultimately subject to interpretation.

Filner clarified his view of community plans in a Thursday interview.

“They’re agreements with the community on the way we ought to develop,” he said. “People spend a lot of time going into making that a shared vision and it’s a shared vision that only with the consent of both sides, do you modify. Now they have to be updated and they have not been but they are the expectations of a community.”

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt and Andrew Keatts are reporters at Voice of San Diego. Know of something they should check out? You can contact them directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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