Sweeping reforms will make neighborhood planning groups more diverse, but possibly less powerful

City Council votes to encourage more diversity, renters; critics say changes may squelch housing opposition


San Diego made sweeping changes Tuesday, Sept. 13, to the city’s 42 neighborhood planning groups in an effort to diversify their membership and make them better organized, but critics call the changes a developer-driven effort to squelch public opposition to dense housing projects.

Critics stress that the changes, which the City Council approved 6-1, eliminate the ability of the neighborhood groups to appeal development approvals for free. Developers will also be only “encouraged” to meet with the groups, not strongly recommended to do so.

Supporters say the changes will boost demographic diversity by requiring more aggressive term limits and encouraging the groups, which are now primarily made up of White homeowners, to recruit more people of color and more renters.

“I believe we should do everything we can to encourage the planning groups to be more diverse,” Councilmember Stephen Whitburn said. “I believe community planning groups are most relevant and most influential when they are representative of the entire community.”

Supporters say the changes would also make the groups more transparent, better organized and less likely to oppose the types of dense developments the city is pursuing to help solve its housing shortage.
The groups would have to comply with state open meetings laws and operate websites that are independent of the city.

The changes were sparked by complaints from the city auditor and the county grand jury that the planning groups are unprofessional, unpredictable and not adequately transparent.

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The groups also have been criticized for seeking to block housing projects too aggressively and for having stagnant membership that doesn’t reflect the neighborhoods they represent. And City Attorney Mara Elliott says they need to operate more independently for liability reasons.

Critics say the changes will severely burden the volunteer groups and create membership goals akin to quotas. They also say some groups, particularly in low-income areas, could be overwhelmed and forced out of existence.

Particularly with the elimination of free appeals for development projects, Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group member David Moty said wealthy communities will be able to afford appeals while groups in low-income areas won’t.

“There will be communities all over this city that will have to scramble to raise that $1,000 during the short appeals window,” Moty said. “We are creating a de facto two-track appeals system.”

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert tried to soften the impact of the loss of free appeals by encouraging Mayor Todd Gloria’s office to consider increasing the $500 annual stipend each group gets. An appeal costs $1,000, so the stipend would have to be tripled for each neighborhood group to be able to pay for one appeal and other current expenses per year.

On diversity, the groups will now be required to revise their bylaws to designate seats for renters, nonprofit groups and other organizations, and to create recruitment plans to help fill those seats. The designated seats are a goal, not a requirement.

“I don’t understand the city’s desire to mandate inclusiveness instead of incentivizing inclusiveness,” said Andrea Schlageter, leader of an umbrella panel of neighborhood groups called the Community Planners Committee.

But supporters said change is necessary.

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“The extensive rules, subject matter and time commitment favors older, upper-middle class, retired homeowners, who do not want the city to change,” said resident Sharon Gehl. “The boards rarely represent all of the stakeholders in their community now, let alone those who might live or work there in the future.”

Resident Michael Donovan agreed.

“The emphasis on bringing more diversity into the groups and ensuring a constant rotation of new voices should go a long way to refreshing what has become a stale and often ignored process,” he said. “True community representation should be a welcome place for developers and city staff to try out ideas to gather community feedback.”

But former Assemblymember Howard Wayne, a member of the Linda Vista Community Planning Group, said the city is cracking down on volunteers who are just trying to make their neighborhoods better.

“We’re community volunteers who devote an immeasurable amount of time to advise the city on land-use issues,” Wayne said. “We’re regular people. We’re involved in our areas. We know them.”

Other changes include tightening term limits, including a requirement that members who hit the cap — usually eight or nine years — be ineligible to serve for one year. And requirements to serve on a group’s board and to vote in board elections will be softened to eliminate rules that members must have attended a group meeting.

Councilmember Raul Campillo, who proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would have restored the free appeals waivers, cast the lone “no” vote. Councilmembers Vivian Moreno and Dr. Jennifer Campbell were absent from the vote.

Neighborhood groups have until the end of 2023 to comply with the new requirements.