Anthony Wagner has been a city of San Diego planning commissioner since June 2013. The commission relies on community planning groups such as the one in Otay Mesa for recommendations on land use. inewsource was able to catch up with the commissioner on the phone to speak about these groups. Here’s a transcript of the conversation that has been edited for length.
Can you explain what a community planning group is?
So community planning groups — there’s approximately 42 — are elected by their neighbors. There are usually about 16 to 18 members in a community planning group. Just to give you an example, in my community, the Navajo community planning group has four representatives each from four neighborhoods: Allied Gardens, Grantville, San Carlos and Del Cerro.
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They’re all bound by Council Policy 600, which sets the tone for the interaction between the city, the community planning group, the City Council and the Planning Commission. They’re a quasi-judicial body that makes recommendations to the hearing officer, the Planning Commission and the City Council.
We recently wrote about the vice chair of the Otay Mesa Planning Group. He’s running an unpermitted RV park east of Otay Mesa and allowed eight businesses to run on unpermitted city property in 2014. Does it concern you that someone in a leadership role of a planning group isn’t following land use regulations himself?
Sure, 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? I would say 99 percent of the time people are just stupid. They’re not acting in a malicious way, but nonetheless it’s still against the zone. People make mistakes all the time. Compare this guy to a neighbor in La Jolla who rents a Bobcat and put themselves in their own retaining wall and just tears up the side of their hill. Well, their neighbor took a picture of it, and is now turning them in. Turns out they bulldozed an endangered species habitat and went into some paleolithic earthquake zone. Now they’ve done $320,000 dollars worth of damage.
Do I think that they are malicious? No. Do I think that they did something stupid? Sure. I think that the world is full of people that just do things stupid that are not acting maliciously.
Does the city have a role in regulating community planning groups?
The worst thing that can happen is somebody who’s a volunteer at a community planning group can be voted out by their peers. Does the Planning Commission or the City Council in my recollection of 20 years working for the city, have they disbarred a community planning group or something like that? No.
There’s different levels of understanding when it comes to a community planning group and it usually comes out in the quality of how they’re able to provide recommendations for specific projects. I would tell you that Otay community plan and Otay community planning group is one of the best in the fact that a vast majority of those individuals are business owners that have been there for 30 years plus. Not only are there business owners, but they’re the land owners of some of those businesses. So they usually pique my interest because they know what they’re talking about. They provide some sage advice on how they’d like to see something happen or to get zoned in their community.
I would say that the frustration is that not all community planning groups are created equal. There are some community planning groups that it seems like all they are is antagonistic with no real solution in sight. Others strive to say, well, if we don’t like this particular project, this is what we’d like to see done to make the particular project happen. But not all community planning groups provide alternatives to plans.
So are you saying is it’s better to have more property owners and business owners in a group?
No, I would say that the Otay community plan is unique in the fact that there aren’t too many homes in that particular area. It’s mostly commercial and industrial. It’s one of the most unique community plans in that it is 90 percent commercial and industrial, if not more than that. When you do get a lot of home owners on a community plan, they have a lot of knowledge of their community. But they’re the first ones to take a defensive position of you know, I don’t want to say NIMBY (not in my backyard), but they are definitely more defensive when it comes to protecting what their community looks like here and now, rather than what it can look like in the future.
Looking at their board, a lot of members are tied to commercial real estate.
But that’s the only one like that, though. A vast majority of the 42 community planning groups are top heavy in neighborhood single-family homeowners, and then you get a mix of business owners. For example the Mission Valley community plan is starting to get more top heavy with business interests just because that particular area is very ripe to look different in the future. But the other thing you also want to look at is where all of the development is going to happen in the next seven years and you’ll find business interests on those community planning group protecting their business interests. It’s everything to them.
Do you think that’s a conflict of interest being in an advisory role?
No, I think that every tax-paying entity, whether it be a homeowner or a business owner, is afforded equal access to government. That affords them equal access to a voice for the Planning Commission, the hearing officer or the City Council.
I have never heard anybody testify before the City Council that was not influenced either by their neighborhood roots or their business roots. Everyone comes to the Planning Commission with a motive, does that exclude them from getting to take part in civic government? No, I don’t think so. Nor do I think that these entities are acting subversively. I’ve not seen that yet.
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