Image: Barely True
Statement: “Any way you chop up the land today, there’s 120 acres of industrial land in Barrio Logan, or available land that could be used for industrial purposes. It’s going from 120 acres down to 60 acres in (the proposed new community plan). That’s 50 percent,” Chris Wahl, president of public affairs firm Southwest Strategies, said at a July 11 Planning Commission hearing.

Determination:  Barely True

Analysis: The City Council is scheduled to vote in September on a new community plan for Barrio Logan.

The community plan, which outlines how an area will handle future growth, will be the first in San Diego updated since the city adopted a new general plan, an umbrella blueprint for the city, in 2008.

But unlike most communities, Barrio Logan doesn’t just need to figure out where to house a growing population or how to improve its public facilities. It also needs to find a way to separate industrial properties from residential ones so people aren’t exposed to the harmful byproducts of heavy industry.

That’s why creating a buffer area between the heavy industrial activities south of Harbor Drive, and the residential community north of Newton Avenue has become a flashpoint within the plan.

City planners have put together two options for creating that buffer.

One of those options is favored by city staff and local residents, while the industrial community favors the alternative plan. At the July 11 Planning Commission hearing, the commission voted to recommend the city’s preferred option to the City Council.

Chris Wahl, a spokesperson for an interest group representing some of the smaller, maritime-oriented businesses in Barrio Logan, urged the Planning Commission to put forward a version of the first option that incorporated some elements of the alternative plan.

That’s when he said the city’s preferred plan would cut in half the amount of land in Barrio Logan available for industrial use.

After the vote, a group of industrial leaders wrote an op-ed in U-T San Diego stressing the economic benefits of the maritime industry and warning that the city’s preferred plan would hurt the industry’s long-term economic well being.

They’ve also sent letters to members of the City Council urging support for the alternative plan.

Because the maritime industry is a major component of San Diego’s economy, Wahl’s statement that the preferred community plan would cut Barrio Logan’s zoned industrial land in half deserves further vetting.

The San Diego maritime industry as a whole is worth $14 billion a year in economic activity and provides 46,000 jobs, according to a 2012 industry study.

The city’s general plan identifies it as a “base sector industry,” one that drives regional prosperity and a primary source for new business. The general plan says the best way community plans can influence the city’s economic health is to prevent encroachment into base-sector uses. The general plan specifically identifies Barrio Logan as an area with prime industrial land that should be protected.

But does the city’s favored community plan cut the amount of industrial property in Barrio Logan in half?

Sort of.

The community plan estimates that there are currently 121.64 acres of industrial land under city jurisdiction in Barrio Logan. That includes plenty of room that can be used for industrial, residential or commercial purposes, not just industrial.

The city’s preferred update scheme includes 60.49 acres of land zoned for industrial use. In the alternative scenario, the one favored by the maritime industry, there would be 80.48 acres of industrial land.

Based on that breakdown, Wahl’s statement seems straightforward.

But it ignores two important caveats.

One is that the community’s total acreage count includes another 112.24 acres of industrial land that’s under the jurisdiction of the Unified Port of San Diego. That land is going to remain prime industrial property, supporting the majority of the working waterfront area, no matter which version of the community plan gets rubber-stamped.

If you include that area, the community’s total industrial area goes from 233.88 acres today to 172.73 acres under the new plan, or a decrease of 26 percent.

Wahl said he stands by his argument.

“That area has been zoned industrial forever, and we know it isn’t going anywhere because it’s not under the city’s jurisdiction in the first place,” Wahl said. “So when you talk about land the city has control over, they’re changing 50 percent of that land.”

Another element worth considering, according to city planners, is the fact that maritime-oriented industrial businesses will be able to seek conditional-use permits — permits that provide an exemption from a property’s zoning — if they’re within most commercial zones.

If you add the commercial areas where maritime-oriented could seek a conditional use permit to the city-controlled land zoned for industrial use, it comes to 124 total acres.

Wahl said the affected maritime-oriented businesses can’t count on getting special permits to operate in commercial zones.

“The reality of the situation is, any new business that tried to get a conditional use permit for an industrial use where residential is allowed won’t be able to get it,” he said. “That’s just common sense. It’s an argument based on a false premise. I would characterize it as very unlikely that an industrial use will be approved where housing is zoned.”

And there’s a third element to consider: Even when the new zoning regulations go into effect, nothing changes overnight.

After the community plan is adopted, businesses in newly changed zones can continue operating as “previously conforming uses.” Those properties can be bought and sold, and won’t have their zoning changed until they’re vacant for two consecutive years.

We determine a statement is “barely true” if it contains an element of truth but leaves out critical context that may alter the impression the statement leaves.

That’s the case with Wahl’s statement.

It takes an element of truth — that the city’s preferred plan reduces by half the amount of land under its control that’s zoned for industrial use in Barrio Logan — but ignores other important considerations about how much industrial land is in the area.

For one, the previously conforming use regulations ensure that no change is going to take place right away. While the area zoned for industrial land under the new plan will drop considerably, every industrial business currently operating outside the industrially zoned area can continue doing so, just as long as they don’t vacate their property for two years.

And the statement ignores the existence of more than 100 acres of industrially zoned land that’s within Barrio Logan’s boundaries, under the port’s jurisdiction. It’s true that the city couldn’t change the zoning for that land even if it wanted to, but it’s also important to be clear that the changes being proposed only affect roughly half of the area that provides industrial employment opportunities to the region.

When the Barrio Logan industrial industry touts the economic impact it has on the region, or the number of people it employs, it doesn’t differentiate between what’s under the city’s jurisdiction versus what’s under the port’s.

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

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.