San Diego’s nearly four dozen community planning groups are an integral component of land-use and zoning decisions, yet city officials say they have little power to hold the groups accountable when questions arise.
City Council policy shapes the groups’ bylaws, but Council President Sherri Lightner said that because they’re community-driven, people who live and work in the community are responsible for electing the board and addressing issues that may surface.
“If the community has a concern with it, they can remove him from the position,” Lightner said. “It’s democracy in its best form where the community actually elects their representatives and they provide the guidance. It’s not our jurisdiction.”
Community planning groups are composed of volunteer residents and business and property owners who directly advise the city-appointed Planning Commission and the City Council on planning and land use in their neighborhoods. They work with city officials to create the general and community plans that guide future projects, zoning and improvements.
Lightner, who started her city government career in a community planning group, said she relies “very heavily” on their input.
“If there’s a concern, we’ll meet with the developer and the community group together and let them know that I’m really looking to the planning group for their direction on the project,” she said.
Board members are allowed to serve up to eight consecutive years but then must take a year off. According to the groups’ bylaws, however, if a group can’t fill the vacant seats, these members can continue to serve with a two-thirds vote from the group.
Melvyn Ingalls has been on the Otay Mesa board since 1994. Rob Hixson, the board’s chairman, said that is because “it’s difficult to try to get people involved.”
The residents at Ingalls’ unpermitted RV park were served 60-day eviction notices on June 10, but most remain on the property.
Ingalls had been warned and cited four times by the county in the last three years for the unpermitted land use. He allowed dozens of families to live on the property without sewage disposal or access to electricity for about $370 a month.
The city of San Diego brought Ingalls to court in 2014 in a similar case. Documents show Ingalls allowed eight businesses to run on a different parcel of unpermitted land. Ingalls paid a $27,000 fine in connection with the case.
In the RV park case, Hixson first told inewsource that land outside the city of San Diego boundaries wasn’t under the jurisdiction of the Otay Mesa group, and he wasn’t aware of the unlawful use of city land.
When inewsource followed up with Hixson after the story was published, he did not comment on the status of the group’s vice chairman.
Planning Commissioner James Whalen, who has also served as a chairman and vice chairman of a community planning group, said “the city expects planning group members, and certainly leadership, to be held to a higher standard of ethics and performance.”
However, in this case, Council President Lightner said there is nothing the city can do unless a complaint reaches the city Planning Department. The community planning group is expected to try to mediate the issue first.
“If there were complaints, they would be investigated, and if there were findings they would come up with a remedy. Sometimes it is to step down, they’re well trained,” Lightner said.
A group member can file a complaint with the chairman and the chairman will appoint a committee within the group to investigate the complaint. The committee then shares its findings with the complainant. If that board member is not satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, then the complaint can be sent to the Planning Department.
Anthony Wagner, a city planning commissioner, said he doesn’t recall the City Council or Planning Commission penalizing a planning group while he has been in office.
He said the Otay Mesa Planning Group is one of the best such groups and has a unique community plan. He said the area is predominantly industrial, which accounts for the planning group’s “top-heavy” ratio of property and business owners to residents.
“They usually pique my interest because they know what they’re talking about,” Wagner said. “They provide some sage advice on how they’d like to see something happen or to get zoned in their community.”
He said Ingalls’ activity on the land doesn’t affect how he views the group’s recommendations.
“You have to think to yourself, were they acting maliciously? Where they knew it was wrong and they did it on purpose, or are they just dumb? And I would say 99 percent of the time people are just stupid,” Wagner said.
Lightner said Ingalls’ property used as an RV park is being handled by the county’s Code Compliance Division.
The residents currently living at the unpermitted RV park have until Sept. 30 to vacate the property, according to the administrative warning the county issued to Ingalls. Many residents still have no plan on where they will go.
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