For months, San Diego’s regional planning agency, SANDAG, has been threatening to seize a valuable piece of land at the site of a planned trolley station in Clairemont.

The agency wanted to build a parking lot there, instead of the transit-oriented development – residential and commercial development designed to maximize access to transit – developers who own the property had planned and which had won support from a community group and two elected officials who represent the area.

The developers are now optimistic they’ve reached a deal with SANDAG, after the agency held the threat of eminent domain over their head for months. The development would include roughly 40 condos, retail space and commuter parking for a new trolley station on three and a half acres at Clairemont Drive, on the new $2.1 billion Mid-Coast Trolley line set to open in 2021.

It could mark the end of years of fights over developing around the new station. City leaders previously proposed allowing far more development there before backtracking in the face of fierce community opposition.

SANDAG and Protea Properties are set to go to court on Dec. 9 over the eminent domain case. SANDAG is arguing it can force Protea to sell the land because it has an overwhelming public need for the land – building 155 parking spaces for the trolley station.

Jeff Essakow, a principal at Protea, said he’s trying to get that court date delayed to January. He thinks he’s reached an agreement with SANDAG officials on a project that could be approved by the board at its Dec. 16 board meeting.

SANDAG spokesman David Hicks said no final decisions have been made on the project and the agency is engaged in ongoing negotiations. He declined to say more because of the legal proceedings.

Under a deal rejected by SANDAG’s board in September – when the board also voted to proceed with eminent domain – Protea agreed to include all of the items in its project that SANDAG had said were the reasons it needed to take the property.

It would build the 155 parking spaces, give SANDAG the land as a construction yard for the trolley station for three years and build an electrical station on site for the trolley station. For that, SANDAG would pay $7.9 million. Seizing the property and building those things itself would cost the agency $15 million, Protea estimated.

If it seized the property, the agency would pay more and yet not get the transit-oriented housing and retail project. That’s a familiar problem for San Diego, which is the worst metro area in all of California at building homes and businesses close to transit stations, according to a report released last year.

SANDAG, the county and the city of San Diego have all cited the importance of locating new development near transit in their long-term planning documents, but in practice they’ve all failed to follow through on those plans.

That’s why Rep. Scott Peters, who appeared at the Mid-Coast Trolley line’s groundbreaking ceremony after helping the agency receive $1 billion in federal grant money to build it, said he was dismayed that SANDAG was playing hardball with a transit-oriented development proposal for the area.

“What I don’t understand is, if you have something that meets your needs, why would you blow it up to pay more money to get less than what’s offered?” Peters said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. One thing we know from research and experience is you need to put significant housing and destinations within walking distance of your transit stations.”

Likewise, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, whose district includes the area and who is a de-facto SANDAG board member since Mayor Kevin Faulconer virtually never attends SANDAG meetings, voted against SANDAG’s decision to pursue eminent domain and said she supported the project after watching the developer rally support behind it.

“I am limited in what I can discuss, because SANDAG’s action was taken in closed session, however, I am deeply disappointed that SANDAG is continuing to pursue the eminent domain proceedings,” Zapf said. “I consider this action unnecessary and inappropriate. In the future, I am hopeful that the will of the community will prevail and my SANDAG colleagues will be persuaded to support this project and reverse the decision to pursue the eminent domain process.”

Community support for a project at this specific site is no small thing.

Two years ago, residents of the community revolted when the city announced it was planning to increase the amount of development that could occur on the site, raising lot’s height limit from 30 feet to 60 feet tall.

They held a rowdy town hall meeting decrying the plan, which the city promptly junked.

Those residents later organized, calling themselves Raise the Balloon, after a protest they held where they used balloons to demonstrate the new 60-foot height limit.

Protea held public events with those residents when it was planning its project and won their support. They packed multiple SANDAG meetings in favor of the project, and flooded the agency with letters praising it.

“I’m working with people who didn’t want anything to be built,” said James Lamattery, spokesman for Raise the Balloon. “I convinced them this was an opportunity to get on board and participate in the process, and now it’s SANDAG’s board that’s blocking it.”

Protea’s plan fits within the city’s existing development restrictions.

Essakow thinks he figured out why SANDAG was apprehensive to approve the deal in September.

In the weeks since, he sat down with SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos, who said the agency was apprehensive that having all of the trolley station’s parking underground would make it uninviting to park-and-ride users.

Protea has since redesigned the project so most of the parking spaces are on an outdoor surface lot adjacent to the station, so it’s clearer that they’re available for trolley users. That’s cleared the way for potential project approval, and dismissing the eminent domain case, Essakow said.

Gallegos and County Supervisor Ron Roberts, chair of SANDAG’s board of directors, gave Protea a list of 12 additional principals that the plan design needed to meet.

“SANDAG challenged me to come up with a better plan, and we’re hopeful now that come Dec. 16 when we go before the board, since we’ve given them exactly what they’ve asked for, it’s going to be hard for them not to support it, because we’ve given them exactly what they asked for,” Essakow said.

Protea’s lawyers had previously been concerned that SANDAG had ulterior motives.

During the September hearing, after dozens of residents supported the project, one person urged the board not to approve the deal: Bruce Kleege, owner of the Best Western Hotel that’s immediately adjacent to the property.

Instead of committing to the one option before it, SANDAG could complete the eminent domain process and then open it up to any developer who wants to submit a proposal, Kleege said; maybe there’s a better deal out there.

Roberts liked the sound of that.

“I like what the last guy said,” Roberts said, just before the board went into closed session to discuss the lawsuit.

It’s a compelling argument, if you set aside that eminent domain is intended to let governments seize property for a specific public concern. It isn’t intended to allow a government to halt a property owner’s development plans and let other developers have a crack at it, said Fred Gordon, Protea’s attorney in the eminent domain case.

“If the government wants to take your property, they have to follow the rules, and they have to be open and honest about the reason they’re taking the property,” he said. “They can’t have a hidden agenda or different motive.”

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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