Memo to San Diego neighborhoods: If there’s a development project in your midst, make sure you’ve got a lawyer on speed dial.

That was the message delivered by a Jan. 30 Superior Court ruling in a suit brought by a North Park community group against Jack in the Box and the city of San Diego.

The court battle, which slogged on through 15 months and four postponements, focused regional attention on a perennial land use dilemma: Can corporate developers brazen their way around zoning laws that small businesses and homeowners must follow to the letter?

In too many local communities, the answer has been a resounding “Of course.” From the Boulevard at 63rd project in Rolando to the Wal-Mart in Sherman Heights, developers have dug into a large bag of tricks – false promises and Trojan horse plans – to build projects that deliberately violated land use ordinances.

The most popular gambit is a bait-and-switch in which the developer gets an over-the-counter permit for interior remodeling, lays low for a while, and then whoosh! Heavy equipment thunders in, exterior walls are torn down and the “remodel” morphs into an illegal demolition and reconstruction.

North Park went down this road in 2007 when Kentucky Fried Chicken bulldozed an eatery and rebuilt it in an improper location. After that, elected officials assured us that City Hall would do a better job of enforcing its laws and protecting its communities.

Four years later, when Jack in the Box announced plans to “remodel” its antiquated building at the intersection of 30th and Upas streets, we were wary. The drive-thru lane at that location is prohibited under current zoning laws. We made it clear that the corporation had a choice: Do a simple remodel and keep the grandfathered drive-thru, or exceed the permit and lose the drive-thru.

We were naïve to ever think that Jack in the Box would play by the rules. We should have learned that corporations will do and spend whatever it takes to feed their bottom lines.

But our real mistake was trusting that our city government would uphold the law. The court dismissed our suit on the grounds that we waited too long to file it. While we dispute that decision, it’s true that we didn’t rush to court, and that was because elected officials asked us to be patient while they sought mitigation. According to an email we received from Lee Burdick, former chief of staff for ex-Mayor Bob Filer, the city attorney even opined that “the process used to issue the permits was inconsistent with the city’s Land Development Code.”

And yet, instead of taking Jack in the Box to court, the city attorney teamed up with the fast-food giant against us.

The website for Care About North Park, our neighborhood alliance, lists the lame excuses we’ve heard from elected officials. They’ll sound familiar to neighborhoods throughout the city. They include:

“Oops, we made a mistake, things fell through the cracks.” This kind of abysmal job performance gets you fired in the private sector.

“We’ve learned a lesson from this, and we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Picture the film “Groundhog Day” without the happy ending.

In a democracy, the court of last resort is the ballot box. As we decide whether to appeal the ruling, we are looking ahead to next year’s elections for two offices that played a key role in this mess, the City Council District 3 representative and the city attorney.

We are eager to meet with candidates for those offices. We will be asking very tough questions, and we will be taking notes.

Rick Pyles and Roger Lewis are co-founders of Care About North Park. Pyles and Lewis’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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