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When SANDAG agreed to create a traffic forecast for SoccerCity, the agency was doing something it had never done before.
It reviewed the project at the request of one of SoccerCity’s opponents, the group led by rival developers Thomas Sudberry and H.G. Fenton.
SANDAG also had to maneuver around its own board policy that says the agency shouldn’t review projects set to go before voters as a ballot item.
The agency got around that requirement based on advice from its legal counsel that the provision didn’t necessarily apply to SoccerCity, a private plan to redevelop the Chargers stadium site as homes, offices, shopping and a new soccer stadium.
But in the months since, the agency changed its policy in a way that will prevent using the same maneuver in the future.
It also could mean that SANDAG won’t conduct a comparable analysis to the one it did for SoccerCity on a competing proposal, called SDSU West, from supporters of San Diego State University that would redevelop the former Chargers stadium cite as a growth opportunity for the university.
The issue began in May, when Public Land, Public Vote, a group created to oppose SoccerCity and led by Fenton and Sudberry, requested a traffic analysis of the project.
At a May 12 meeting, the executive committee of SANDAG’s board discussed the request, and raised a couple issues.
The first was a board policy that specifically said the agency shouldn’t weigh in on development projects that are heading before voters.
“The Service Bureau will deny all requests for services directly dealing with legislative matters, propositions, or candidates for public office,” the policy reads.
The idea is for SANDAG’s analysis to avoid potential conflicts and stay above the fray by not getting dragged into political campaigns.
But SANDAG’s legal counsel, John Kirk, said the policy didn’t actually apply in this case.
That’s because FS Investors, the group behind SoccerCity, at that point had collected and submitted enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but San Diego’s City Council had not yet voted to either approve the project outright, or put it on the ballot.
Technically, that meant the project wasn’t yet a formal proposition, though it became one a month later, well before SANDAG had released its analysis.
“You’re not violating the letter of the policy,” Kirk said.
That interpretation concerned some board members.
“I just want to I guess go on the record and say, I understand the policy, I’m agnostic about the potential initiative, but I’m a little concerned about the optics here,” said Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. “We’ve got something that’s in the process of becoming an official initiative, and we’re saying, ‘Well, until it’s certified … ’ Well, OK. I don’t know if that troubles anybody else, but it gives me a little bit of heartburn.”
National City Mayor Ron Morrison asked whether SANDAG had ever granted a traffic study requested by someone other than the project’s developer. A staffer said he couldn’t recall it ever happening, but that there was nothing that precluded it.
“It sounds like we’re on a little virgin territory here,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s concern ended up not mattering – after SANDAG approved doing the study, FS Investors and Public Land, Public Vote agreed to be joint applicants, splitting the cost and both receiving the data.
But the committee decided to have staff review the policy and bring it back to the full board for a potential future change.
Some on the board, including SANDAG Chair Ron Roberts, argued the policy should be made less restrictive, since development projects are expected to increasingly make their way to the ballot and SANDAG would essentially be excusing itself from weighing in on those major decisions. And as long as the agency stands by its data, it shouldn’t hesitate to offer it up, just because elections are contentious.
“We’re not choosing sides,” Roberts said.
Last week, SANDAG’s executive committee came back with the proposed new policy, and went the other direction entirely.
It closed the loophole it opened for the SoccerCity analysis.
The policy change would mean SANDAG would have a conflict “if the subject matter of the request is or is reasonably expected to be the subject of any filing with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters or applicable filing authority regarding an upcoming election.”
“Recent experience has shown that even when work is undertaken before a project qualifies for the ballot, it can still become politically divisive,” Kirk said at last week’s executive committee meeting.
The SoccerCity analysis turned into a months-long, contentious ordeal before SANDAG finally released it last week. In November, a SANDAG staffer working on the analysis, in an email to FS Investors’ traffic consultants, acknowledged the issue had become political.
“Politics have forced our hand regarding the 11/17 8am meeting,” Mike Calandra wrote. “That will indeed be the final meeting, and I think it is intended to be both technical and executive. The final results as well as SANDAG’s responses to outstanding questions and issues will be on the agenda.”
The new rule restricting SANDAG from weighing in on matters that could reasonably become ballot measures would apply to the SDSU West proposal that’s expected to share the ballot with SoccerCity.
It’s possible, then, that SANDAG’s model will have been used to measure traffic for one of those proposals, and not for the other. SANDAG’s analysis projected SoccerCity to produce more traffic than the project’s developers had previously claimed.
But there’s a catch.
At the committee hearing discussing the policy change, Roberts had a proposal. He said cities and the county should still be able to request a SANDAG analysis for items heading to the ballot, but not outside parties.
That would mean there could still be a study of SDSU West if the city of San Diego requests one. San Diego’s City Council would need to ask for it.