Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders on Wednesday criticized the city's planning process, saying that City Hall has "gone back to a model of endless meetings" that tie up development projects.
Speaking at a panel discussion sponsored by Torrey Pines Bank, Sanders, who now heads the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, urged businesses to elect politicians who "understand the entitlement process," a reference to the concept that landholders should have greater latitude over how to develop their properties.
As mayor, Sanders dismantled the city's Planning Department in 2011, merging it with the Development Services Department, which focused more on issuing permits than developing long-range plans involving the rezoning of neighborhoods, drafting of community-wide building codes and development of public services and infrastructure.
The Planning Department has since been revived, headed by Bill Fulton, a nationally known advocate of "smart growth," who promotes long-range plans as a way of giving developers a clearer picture of each community's vision for its future, which should streamline the approval process.
But Sanders said the current planning process, which relies on many community meetings and public hearings, allows too many "gadflies" to slow developments. He said the process was particularly disruptive last year under the administration of former Mayor Bob Filner.
"The city went backward very quickly under Filner, whose name I can't even stand to use," Sanders said. "You could have all your permits (for a construction project), with steel in the ground, and it would all ground to a halt because he didn't like it."
Sanders said Filner had intimidated the staffers at the Development Services Department, causing them to put any proposed project "through all the hoops, just so they wouldn't upset the mayor."
Brian Seltzer, chief operating officer of the law firm of Seltzer Caplan McMahon & Vitek, who also spoke at the panel, said he felt developments had been handled more smoothly when the city was run by a city manager, rather than the "strong mayor" form of government that the city changed to in 2005.
"There can be a marked difference between the moderate and predictable leadership (of one mayor) … and when there's a situation where the environment is not stable, and there's (a mayor with) a different approach and a different value set," Seltzer said, referring to Filner.
"There are definitely drawbacks to the ‘strong mayor’ system," Sanders said in an interview after the discussion. "There need to be tweaks, but it's too late to turn the clock back now."
When asked what "tweaks" he would recommend, Sanders could not come up with any. But he said the Chamber of Commerce is currently drafting recommendations for changing the City Charter regarding the mayor's powers.
Sanders and the Chamber are working to overturn one of the more controversial plans developed over the past six years under the aegis of the Planning Department – the rezoning of the southern waterfront to create a commercial zone between the industrial shipyards and the residential neighborhoods of Barrio Logan.
The Chamber sides with the shipyards, which complain that the commercial zone's regulations on growth and permitting are too restrictive.
On the other hand, the Chamber this week praised a similar community plan for the northern end of Little Italy, creating a nonresidential buffer zone around the Solar Turbines factory on Pacific Highway.
The plan, which the City Council passed unanimously, also won the support of the San Diego Unified Port District, Downtown Partnership and San Diego Port Tenants Association.