For the last decade, San Diego has been ignoring its own restrictions on who can benefit from a program that fast-tracks development projects.

A handful of connected architects has been the primary beneficiary of the city’s decision to overlook its own rules.

The city lets developers pay extra to fast-track their projects, but to qualify they need to provide something beneficial to the public – like affordable housing, or homes with low-greenhouse gas footprints.

In 2003, the so-called sustainable expedite program was created to help developers get projects approved faster if they generated half their power from renewable energy, a boon to solar panels long before they were as financially competitive as they are now.

But program eligibility requires projects to include at least four housing units, to encourage dense development.

In a report released this week, the city auditor’s office found that since 2006, the city has let applicants into the program who don’t qualify, including those building single-family homes.

Half of all projects that used the program from 2011 to 2015 — the period covered by the audit – were ineligible. Thirty percent of the projects that used it were single-family homes.

Additional information obtained by Voice of San Diego through a public records request shows that 70 single-family homes were approved within the program since 2006.

Records available through the city’s Open DSD platform show that of those 70 homes, more than half were completed by just five architecture companies.

Far and away the most frequent user of the program was Golba Architecture. In addition to being a prolific architect in the coastal neighborhoods, Tim Golba was also a member from 2008 through 2015 of the city’s Planning Commission, an appointed body that approves certain developments in the city. In 2014, Mayor Kevin Faulconer appointed Golba chair of the commission.

Golba is a regular donor to Republican politicians and causes. He and his wife both gave the maximum legal amount to Faulconer’s mayoral campaign in 2016 and 2014. Overall, he’s contributed over $12,000 to City Council and mayoral elections since 2007, including a donation to the Lincoln Club of San Diego.

According to city records, Golba’s company built 31 percent of all the single-family homes that were approved by the sustainable expedite program since 2006.

“It absolutely wasn’t supposed to be open to us, and staff knew it,” Golba told me. “The condition was, if staff got too busy, then they’d shut the door to anyone who didn’t meet the threshold.”

Other architects have also made frequent use of the city’s decision to ignore its own sustainability requirements. Frontis Studio got nine single-family homes approved since 2006. Marengo-Morton Architects got seven homes approved; Claude-Anthony Marengo and his wife Deborah Marengo, principals of the firm, have donated $14,080 to political campaigns since 2008. Rollins Consulting completed six projects.

It isn’t so surprising that Golba benefited so often from the program. Letting single-family homes take advantage of the program was his idea.

Golba proposed the idea of opening the program to projects with fewer than four units, at an April 2006 City Council committee hearing when he was a member of the Sustainable Energy Advisory Board.

“What we’d like to do is take this program to the next level,” Golba said at the hearing, which included Faulconer, who was then a City Council member. “There’s an incredible market that’s untapped for this.”

The City Council never approved that change, but representatives for the Development Services Department told the auditor’s office that they began letting in smaller projects anyway, based on that hearing.

Golba provided an email from 2011 in which a draft proposal of a language change was sent to sustainable development industry members and city staff, including then-Development Services Director Kelly Broughton, which would have changed the program to include single-family homes.

But the change was never officially made, and DSD began operating the program on goodwill, Golba said, allowing in single-family developers as long as staff had time to do it.

“There’s a lot of stuff at DSD that are done that way,” he said. “That’s why we all shed tears when we lose senior staff: We lose 30 years of how to do things, or how to interpret the code. There’s a lot that operates that way, more than we would ever want.”

It ends up being an advantage for those architects with a history with the city.

“Someone in Scottsdale comes in, reads the four-unit threshold, and gets scared away because he doesn’t know about an unwritten policy,” Golba said. “That’s not fair, but after 30 years of dealing with the city of San Diego, I like it being that way. We know what policies there are.”

Golba rejected the idea that his high profile or political donations had anything to do with being allowed to take advantage of the program. He’s never heard of another architect being rejected from participating for being below the threshold, and said many of the other architects who take advantage of the program did so on his advice.

Yet, he agreed with the city auditor’s recommendation that Development Services should stop giving an incentive to single-family projects that generate 50 percent of their power from solar energy.

It was one thing 10 years ago, when solar panels were a novelty and homeowners needed a carrot to consider them. Now, solar power makes sense on its own merits.

“Sadly, the program’s a dinosaur now,” Golba said, pointing to other state and federal development standards that had passed it by. “Even if they hang on to the program after the audit, I don’t know how it survives. Doing 50 percent solar is comical now. It’s hard to say it’s on the cutting edge of sustainability.”

The audit recommends the city follow its existing rules and close the program to single-family homes.

Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson said the mayor agrees with all of the audit’s recommendations, including immediately ceasing single-family homes from participating. Other changes to Development Services Department policies are expected to go before the City Council by the end of June.

Gustafson didn’t respond to questions about how the department began disregarding its own requirements.

Update: Due to an error in the city’s records, an earlier version of this story identified another architecture firm, Studio Varone, as having benefited from the city’s sustainable expedite program. The firm’s principal, Sasha Varone, worked for Golba Architecture when she did those projects. They should have been classified as Golba Architecture projects as well.

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

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