San Diego’s land use policies are, in a sense, set just like all its other policies: They’re determined by City Council vote.

But before any plan arrives on the council dais, it wends its way through an intricate, costly, years-long process that attempts to align local interests with the city’s blueprint for the future.

The city lays out its overall land use strategy in its general plan. When that plan got its most recent update, in 2008, it called for a “city of villages” approach that would steer new housing into dense pockets, near employment areas and accessible to transit.

But San Diego’s massive size makes it impossible for the general plan to hash out zoning on a neighborhood level, let alone the property-by-property level needed to give residents and businesses a clear blueprint for the future they envision.

For that, the city turns to community plans.

“We give stakeholders a way to participate on a policy that will be selected by officials,” said Joe Lacava, chair of the city’s community planners committee. “When it’s managed well it is a very effective way to make land use decisions.”

Once adopted, each community plan becomes an extension of the general plan.

Those localized land use policies are administered through the city’s 52 community planning areas.

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Most of the areas have an independently elected community planning group of between 12 and 20 voting members. These groups have limited authority, and their decisions count simply as recommendations to the next rung on the decision-making ladder. They vote on new plans for the community, and on changes to existing plans initiated by private developers.

Above the community-level groups sits the citywide Planning Commission. The seven-member commission also has limited authority, with a vote that serves as a recommendation to the council, which alone holds approval authority. Not even the mayor can veto the council’s decision on land-use issues.

Though the Planning Commission’s vote is only a suggestion, city staff, through the planning division in the development services department, does most of the heavy lifting on any community plan update.

“Technically a community plan is developed through city staff, working with the community group, and that should be what goes through the Planning Commission and the City Council for action,” said Michael Stepner, former city architect and a professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. “The Planning Commission or City Council can say, ‘Thank you very much but we want to amend what you’ve given us.’”

“It isn’t purely a democratic process, it’s a representative process,” Lacava said. “At the end, it’s the mayor’s office, through city planners and the City Council, that makes the decision.”

The journey to consideration by the city includes a gauntlet of studies, public meetings and votes that cost about $2 million each.

The process of passing legislation at any level is convoluted. But community planning’s elaborate process is unlike any other in the city.

Making a Plan

The council itself initiates an update of an out-of-date community plan, based largely on need and the availability of funding to support the nearly three-year process.

From there, city staff takes over, beginning with establishing a basic understanding of the community. How are properties currently being used? How much land is undeveloped? What are the community’s unique needs?

Then it launches a series of technical studies to provide a foundation of facts. Air quality, historical resources, economic impacts, natural resources, noise, population and housing stock, pedestrian access and traffic all get examined. The studies take more than two years, and become central to the plan.

Meanwhile, the process of engaging the community begins with a series of meetings.

In the past, and with some of the updates currently in progress, this community outreach was handled by a separate committee representing a broad swath of interested local parties — residents, business representatives, nonprofits, etc. — that included members of the community planning group but was technically a separate entity.

But in a report to the Planning Commission late last year, Kelly Broughton, head of the city’s development services division, recommended relying instead on the elected community planning groups themselves.

It was a bullet point under a section heading called “lessons learned.”

Joe Lacava, chairman of the community planners committee — a group that seeks to ensure communication between the various community groups on citywide planning issues — said he supports the change.

“(Broughton) saw that (advisory committees) created more friction and wasted people’s time,” he said. “It’s the community planning groups that are elected, and really which should be expected to have that responsibility.”

Armed with the studies and takeaways from community meetings, city planners begin outlining the first draft of a plan.

Once planners have put together a draft — which might include a few options for decision-makers to choose from, as in the case of Barrio Logan — the community planning group makes a recommendation.

Complicating the picture citywide is the fact that the hyper-local level inevitably involves wildly different dynamics within each planning group. Big personalities, or specific interests, can push their way into a group, and make the update process more volatile.

Yet it’s the planners, not the community planning groups, who really wield the power at this point: They can move the process forward by marking the plan for an environmental review, as required by state law, or call for more work on the document.

“Planning groups are listened to very closely, because they’re on the ground, but the planners have the say. A group might call for [a] height limit, for instance, but that could be a solution to something that’s just a symptom, and not the real problem,” Stepner said.

For residents, the plans also carry the promise of ushering in funding for public facilities to meet the area’s ongoing needs, like roads, sidewalks, traffic signals, libraries and parks. Funding for those projects is provided through developer fees for new projects, though those fees usually only account for about 10 percent of the cost of new facilities.

“An updated plan is better than an outdated one, and an impact fee program that’s current is better than one that isn’t, but it certainly isn’t a panacea to solve the community’s problem,” Lacava said.

Once finalized in draft form, the plan undergoes a thorough environmental review. The public’s given 45 days to comment on the environmental review, the community group has its say and the city provides a response to those responses. Those three things, along with the initial environmental review, constitute the final environmental impact statement.

The draft then goes before the planning group or advisory committee for its recommendation in light of the environmental report, before making its debut to the citywide Planning Commission. The Planning Commission’s recommendation then moves it forward to the council for a final decision.

That is, unless the community is in the coastal area. In that case, a final decision goes to the Coastal Commission, which could take as long as three years.

Making a Change

The frequency with which on-the-fly amendments are attempted to accommodate specific developments is perhaps the biggest indicator of how badly out of date most community plans are.

These developer-initiated amendments go through their own bureaucratic process, and have a tendency to boil over into heated disagreements between developers and residents, as the One Paseo project in Carmel Valley has demonstrated recently. A land-owning developer there is pushing for a 1.5 million square foot mixed-use project on a property zoned for just 500,000 square feet of office space.

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A developer might purchase a property that, per the existing community plan, is restricted to a certain use, like single-family housing. If the developer would rather use the property for commercial or multi-family housing, it needs to submit an application to amend the community plan to the city planning department.

“The desire for amendments is really driven by private property owners, the market and the economy,” Lacava said. “But, I’d bet if you did a test, once an update gets approved, there’s probably a lag time before people come in with amendment applications. One reason might be because the developer would push for the consideration during the update, and realizes if it didn’t happen, then politically there won’t be an appetite for the change.”

Photo by  Sam Hodgson
Gary Swenson, a resident of Allied Gardens, lives near the proposed site for The Village at Zion, a 60-unit senior housing project on a property originally zoned only for single-family housing.

City planners review the application, and pass it to the Planning Commission to decide whether to green light an amendment process.

From there, the process is similar to the one facing a community update, as outlined above, and once again finishes with the council, unless it’s in the coastal zone.

The Finished Product

Community-level planning has created a few recurring tendencies.

One is the ability to bring otherwise detached citizens into the legislative process.

“We have people who, for perfectly sensible reasons, don’t get involved until something happens at the end of their block,” Stepner said.

And once those citizens are involved, the city can’t help but take a closer look at the neighborhood.

“It’s very easy, perhaps efficient even, to treat them all the same. But each neighborhood is unique in some ways,” Stepner said. And community planning ensures those differences figure into land use policy.

The process of making regular changes, Stepner said, also allows the city to adjust its policies as thinking changes.

“We’ve realized the value of walking now, but we haven’t invested in public services and infrastructure, and it would have been nice if those had been done differently,” he said. “But I look at the City Heights urban village — that helped the neighborhood turn around.”

Increasing community involvement also increases the desire to preserve the status quo, particularly in areas with an above-average quality of life, said Lacava.

“The system doesn’t lend itself to new ways of thinking, or thinking of how one community fits into a larger vision of our city as a whole,” he said. “We often don’t give the information to people to tell them that — though the general plan defines the city as a whole, and the community plan defines that corner of the city — you need to think of your community, but also the city as a whole.”

That lesson would be easier to impart, he said, if the city updated all of its community plans regularly or simultaneously, rather than letting them grow outdated and updating some sporadically.

Financial constraints have forced the present situation, but the piecemeal approach has an effect.

“If we go to a group and say, ‘You need to change for the good of the city as a whole,’ they feel picked on,” Lacava said.

One possible solution is bringing adjacent communities through the process at the same time, like the Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill areas are doing now.

The city’s best chance to bolster its planning apparatus, according to Stepner, is to follow its own policy that says plans should be revisited every five years.

“If people look at where things are going, and look into whether we were following the plan with their decisions, you wouldn’t expect to get into large disagreements about the community that you see with One Paseo (in Carmel Valley), for instance,” Stepner said.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter:

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Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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