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Grand jury report finds 'lack of clarity' in city's Development Services Department

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"The Development Services Department of the city of San Diego is staffed with well-qualified and dedicated people who have to work with an extraordinarily long and opaque development code."

This was the conclusion of a newly released San Diego County Grand Jury report titled, "Professionals in a Maze".

"Staff levels (the department has about 450 employees, according to Kelly Broughton, Development Services director) are subject to large changes in number, and there is considerable lack of clarity and excessive latitude in the application of the city's ordinances in approving development projects," the report states.

Broughton said while he appreciates the comments, the Grand Jury may fail to understand that governing the development of a 300-square-mile city is a complex endeavor governing everything from rural densities to downtown residential and commercial high-rises.

Broughton said his department has already managed to take 23 distinct processes and pare them down to five, but the Grand Jury report says more streamlining and fewer conflicting statutes are necessary.

A major part of the problem in getting projects expedited is what the Grand Jury suggests is an archaic and exceedingly long land development code that runs some 1,700 pages in length.

"We were told by the DSD (Development Services Department) and the City Clerk's office that the most up-to-date version of the code was available on the net, but we found the material to be illegible," the report states.

Broughton said his department is continuously revising and updating its code documents, but the Grand Jury report said an outside entity such as a blue ribbon commission, could look at the code with fresh eyes and make appropriate revisions.

This is not the first time a San Diego County Grand Jury has critiqued the DSD. The 2002-2003 Grand Jury said it wanted easier access to the municipal code on the city's website, and said that applicants needed professional help for even the simplest projects.

"DSD officials are caught in the middle of a multiple ring circus: the applicant, the public and the review process," the report continues.

"It also may be added that the Centre City Development Corp. is able to process entitlement applicants more rapidly than DSD," the report states.

The Grand Jury then once more took time to praise the DSD's employees whom they view as being placed in a near-impossible situation.

"The DSD personnel were knowledgeable, forthcoming and helpful. Contrary to a common urban myth, we found no evidence of corruption in the department," the report said adding that some employees continue to worry about their own positions in the wake of cutbacks instituted last year.

Broughton also expressed high praise for his employees.

"These people are highly trained professionals, with a great deal of background and skills with a lot of different perspectives," Broughton said.

Broughton did say he feels he does have enough people overall, although he may have some spot shortages depending on the nature of the job. In any case, he says there is plenty of work to keep his department busy.

"The commercial activity is leveling off, but the residential is coming back bit by bit," Broughton said.

The Grand Jury report also raises the question as to whether the DSD should, as it does, survive solely on the fees the department collects.

"That means the staff is usually too few in number and unstable in positions. This erodes morale and makes it more difficult to maintain the expertise the department needs," the report said before suggesting that perhaps general fund monies could kick in once the DSD's funds get below a certain level.

In the meantime, times aren't always slow. The report said when times are good, work could be farmed out to consultants.

The report then critiques several projects. One was the Sunroad Centrum development in Kearny Mesa, where the top 20 feet of an office tower had to be lopped off due to the FAA height regulations. The Grand Jury said there may not have been such a battle, had the zoning and the manuals governing the site's development agreed on the proper course.

In some cases, the report said the DSD staff failed to see what should have been required. The Grand Jury said this was the case when it sanctioned the rezone requiring the demolition of two office buildings and the erection of two four-story buildings at 444-480 Camino del Rio South in Mission Valley.

The new plans called for an office building and 72 residential units for a total of 188,950 square feet. The old square footage was just 71,670 square feet. The changes also required the removal of 86,000 cubic yards of dirt from the site.

"In our opinion, these types of changes would seem to be enough to trigger a full-blown environmental impact report," the Grand Jury concludes.

The DSD staff allowed the project to proceed with a negative declaration (a lesser standard) instead.

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