When San Diego chooses a company to write a vision for the future of Bay Park and Linda Vista, its planning director won’t be making the call.

The city is selecting a consultant to rewrite development restrictions around two new trolley stops. Planning director Bill Fulton removed himself from the decision due to a conflict of interest under the city’s ethics ordinance.

Four planning staffers will instead recommend the best option and the city’s deputy COO will make the final decision.

Before becoming San Diego’s planning director, Fulton was partial owner of an Orange County-based firm that later became PlaceWorks, now a finalist for a city contract worth up to $375,000.

“When PlaceWorks informed me they intended to submit a proposal, I told staff to remove me from all communication and discussion in the selection process,” Fulton said.

PlaceWorks is competing to write plans that would lift development restrictions near stations along a trolley-line extension from Old Town to La Jolla. The city wants make way for more homes there to increase trolley ridership and help meet the region’s long-term housing need.

The proposal had already sparked vocal opposition. The planning department seems to have dealt with the Fulton conflict to the letter of city policy, but even the appearance of a connection between Fulton and the consultant could feed local distrust around the already controversial plan.

Fulton was principle and shareholder with a company called The Planning Center|DC&E, which changed its name to PlaceWorks in March. He left the company in July 2013 to take the job with the city.

When he accepted the San Diego gig, Fulton sold his shares in the firm for a price its ownership had set earlier that year for any internal sale. Per the ownership agreement, he’d get paid out in installments for five years.

According to the city’s ethics code, Fulton’s conflict of interest with PlaceWorks lasts until 12 months after he stops receiving payments from the company. But if they get the job, he’ll be able to work with them just like any other consultant.

The City Council will need to approve whatever plan city staff and the consultant they pick come up with.

Earlier this year, city planners rolled out their initial recommendations to allow taller buildings and more homes around the stations.  That plan, they said, is consistent with the city’s long-term development plan, adopted in 2008, that calls for dense urban neighborhoods near transit options, in order to lower the city’s environmental footprint and provide affordable housing.

Clairemont residents, especially those in Bay Park, really don’t like that idea. They’ve filled various community meetings over the last month to voice their displeasure, and signs calling the plan an attack on the neighborhood dot the community. Some of the opposition has been aimed directly at Fulton.

Michael Prinz, the city’s senior planner for the area, said seven companies submitted bids for the contract. Four companies, including PlaceWorks, are interviewing with a four-person panel next week. The panel will recommend a firm to deputy COO David Graham later that week.

The city will then negotiate contract details through the summer and could finalize the deal in September, with the consultant’s work beginning in October.

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 andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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