February 25, 2005

National City Spotlight:

Links in the Chain

By Ted Godshalk

Since the New Year, the National City City Council/CDC has discussed and voted on several significant issues, which will have a lasting influence on the community. Let us review these issues, thinking about them as links in a chain, and consider the interests which tie them together.

The first chain link is the Downtown Specific Area Plan, which was approved over the objections of some residents who wanted to see a guaranteed percentage of affordable housing included. Some people, including myself, wanted full documentation on how the city will deal with harmful impacts like air pollution, heavy traffic, and loud noise, and ask how expensive increased city services will be paid for. But in the end, even after a day-long workshop in which numerous concerns were raised and corrective actions suggested, CDC staff admitted it had neither analyzed the public’s comments nor made any changes to the plan. When it came time to vote, to his credit, Councilman Luis Natividad made a series of motions requiring 15% affordable housing in all new downtown residential developments. His motion failed and Councilmembers Zarate, Morrison, and Parra voted to approve the Specific Plan with no requirements for affordable housing. So what’s going on people? Do we not want to build homes downtown for families and for single income couples who currently rent? Or is it that the campaign donors are coming home to roost? The objections of the residents were completely ignored with respect to this plan, and the developers, including the several who spoke in favor of the plan, simply got their way. It really is no wonder they like this Specific Plan. It can save them thousands, if not millions, of dollars by clearing the way for them to avoid environmental review and public scrutiny, and by giving them public subsidies associated with their properties.

The second link in the chain is Impact fees. After a one-year study, consultants found that in almost all cases, cities like National City undercharge for development services. In fact, there has never been a true Impact fee. The recommendation to the Council was that the city starts recovering the full cost based on the notion that if someone is making a profit then the taxpayers should not foot the bill. The Council and Mayor approved the new fees. The key thing to note here is that new development can be required to pay fees for things like parks and new fire and police substations. Whew! I guess it’s a good thing the voters didn’t support Prop. S last November to raise their property taxes now that we have this better source of funding. I have to wonder about the timing of that proposition and the sense of urgency some of the proponents were claiming at election time.

The third link is eminent domain. Always hearing the claim that eminent domain is the tool of last resort and it has not been used, we now know that the process of eminent domain has been initiated at least twice in recent years. Two property owners in the Harbor District (24th Street and I-5), including the owners of Ace Metal, were forced into negotiations with the CDC. You see, the power of eminent domain is in its use as a threat, as in: “If you don’t sell to us (the developers) you will lose your house (or business). It will be condemned and you won’t get very much for it.” Eminent domain is used to force someone to sell. At this week’s City Council meeting, two NC Blvd. property owners told the Council that they had been threatened in this fashion. Natividad, Morrison, and Zarate (Inzunza and Parra are disqualified as property owners in the redevelopment area) heard more public testimony this week and have now agreed the scope of the proposed eminent domain power is too long (12 years) and too broad (805 to San Diego Bay). It is refreshing to see this more measured approach. They ordered staff to revise it for their reconsideration on March 22. If any of this affects you, you should get down to City Hall in advance, ask questions, and move to protect yourself.

We see how these three issues are certainly coupled together. Eminent domain is a hammer, which is held by the redevelopment agency on behalf of developers. Impact fees are used to “put out fires” when trying to keep up with the impacts from the new developments they encouraged in the first place. And a Specific Plan greases the skids so that the whole thing slides along without the hindrance of things like public participation and environmental impact reports. Furthermore, there are many more links in this complex chain. Campaign contributions, ethics, other Specific Area Plans, and of course, personal agendas and interests are all fastened together in a entangled relationship; but alas, these are the stuff of another Spotlight commentary.

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com

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