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Heidel introduces associates to world of land use law

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Since leaving her job as a high school teacher in the 1970s to become a land use attorney in San Diego, Lynne Heidel has watched the city elect seven mayors, welcome more than 400,000 new bodies and grow both outward and now upward to accommodate the new arrivals.

Heidel, a partner at the law firm of Allen Matkins, has been a key figure behind many of the developments that define the city's urban landscape today. With that depth of experience it is not uncommon for elected officials to turn to her for clarification of the city's complex land use code at public hearings. According to Heidel, that is a result of her reputation as a straight shooter at City Hall.

"I won't espouse a particular point of view with city officials if I don't see it as credible or defensible," she said.

While she continues to use her knowledge and relationships to assist clients with new development, she is also reassuming a role from her past -- that of a teacher.

Over the past five years, Heidel has taken three associates under her wing. Robin Munro, Jeff Russell and Heather Riley -- all of whom, along with Heidel, are registered lobbyists -- work with Heidel on development projects in San Diego and elsewhere. Allen Matkins' land use entitlement team represents clients ranging from high-rise condominium builders and resort hotel developers to social service organizations, churches and hospitals.

Urban infill

Urban infill development, says Heidel, is the new reality for land-strapped San Diego.

"That's a huge change; projects that were built in what were outlying areas are now completely surrounded by development," she said.

Infill development also carries a unique set of challenges. Building dense projects in established neighborhoods is often a lightning rod for controversy, hampering efforts to gain the necessary approvals from elected officials. In addition, San Diego's stringent development regulations and environmental controls often entangle hapless developers with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Despite the hurdles to project approval in the region, Heidel's team has assembled an impressive catalogue of victories.

Paseo de Mission Hills, a mixed-use project, endured a laundry list of setbacks. The site was located at the center of a well established and politically active community, contained a number of historic structures and was subject to a number of cryptic code provisions. Over the course of four years the developer redesigned the project multiple times and reached out to the community for feedback and support.

Despite these efforts, each city approval was invariably followed by an appeal of that decision by project opponents, according to Munro.

"In this situation, (the developer) did everything they were supposed to do, but despite that there was still opposition and appeals at every level," Munro said.

Eventually the project progressed to the city council. At what was one of the more raucous public hearings in recent history, Heidel and Munro helped negotiate an acceptable project with the council that included affordable housing units, preserved historic features and contained a density that was acceptable to both the developer and the city. The council ultimately approved the project over a vocal and highly choreographed opposition.

Reilly, the most recent addition to the team, already has a victory at the Planning Commission under her belt. Heidel and Reilly ushered a mixed-use infill project through a number of community planning group meetings to the Planning Commission. The project, breaking new ground in terms of size and scale with respect to the surrounding neighborhood, also faced a well-organized opposition. Although the project reflected what was envisaged for the site by the city's general plan, a number of community activists fought the project and hired an attorney to challenge the environmental document.

Heidel and Reilly handled the challenges with ease. As a fifth-year associate with a background in CEQA litigation, Reilly provided valuable input during preparation of responses to criticisms of the project's environmental document. The Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to recommend approval of the project to the city council.

Coastal Commission

Urban growth issues are magnified along Southern California's beaches, where a number of often competing interests complicate new development. The most prominent body that regulates coastal land use is the California Coastal Commission.

Established by voter initiative in 1972, the 12-member body oversees development along the state's 1,200-mile coastline, and their authority extends from approving new construction on vacant lots all the way down to deck extensions on single-family homes.

Heidel's team has a history of successful appearances before the commission. Heidel has represented countless homeowners in San Diego and North County whose property lies within the commission's jurisdiction. Munro secured a victory for a group of condominium owners in La Jolla who needed commission approval to repair a failing seawall but faced a potential mitigation fee of nearly $1 million.

Most recently, Heidel and Russell championed a contentious condominium hotel project before the commission. The project was originally approved as a standard hotel by the commission in the early 1990s, but construction proved difficult to finance. The developer proposed converting the hotel to a condotel, a concept gaining traction in California and around the country. The concept was new to commission staff, who were unfamiliar with nonresidential condominium units, and ultimately recommended denial of the proposed change. At that point Heidel and Russell, working with the client and consultants, launched a full-fledged campaign to educate commissioners about the intricacies of condotels, a formidable task given that most commissioners were just as unfamiliar with the concept as staff. Nonetheless, the team successfully conveyed their message and emerged victorious from the commission hearing with project approval.

Building a legacy

The growth of a land use entitlement team at Allen Matkins rounds out the firm's reputation as a premier real estate firm statewide.

While the team's successes are attributable in part to a firm grasp of the myriad land use regulations and the ability to convey that information to both clients and officials, more than that is required for success in the long-term, according to Heidel.

"Integrity and honesty are fundamental in interactions with city officials as well as staff," she says. "When you make mistakes, don't try to hide them. Acknowledge them and find a way to solve the problem."

These are the lessons that have established Heidel's reputation in the city, and that she shares with Munro, Russell and Reilly as the newest members of the team branch out to establish themselves in the community just as she did 27 years ago.

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