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My 35-year career in public education included five years as a high school English teacher, 30 as a university administrator. I began my second life as a freelance journalist, beginning as an award-winning op-ed columnist for the former San Diego daily North County Times.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Coastal Commission Halts Carlsbad Mayor's Land Use Shell Game

Find the Hidden Mega Mall

Thanks to the vigilance of California Coastal Commissioner Olga Diaz and the leadership of Carlsbad City Council candidate Cori Schumacher, regional shopping centers and mixed use residential developments were not allowed to sneak past the California Coastal Commission at its May 11 meeting to approve a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) Amendment to the city's General Plan Update.

In a shell game disguised as "consolidating land use designations," Mayor Matt Hall told commissioners there were no substantive changes to the city's land use plan for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Public Use Corridor in combining "Travel/Recreation Commercial," "Travel Services" and "Recreation commercial" into the single title, "Visitor Commercial."

As Carlsbad voters will recall, an L.A. developer named Rick Caruso tried to bypass voters and state environmental impact reviews last year with a bogusly named "citizen-led" initiative, the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Specific Plan, which would have changed the land use of 27 acres near the lagoon from Travel Services (TS) to Visitor Serving Commercial (VSC), allowing a regional shopping mall to be built there. Carlsbad volunteer activists launched a successful referendum to force a vote on the project that led to the landslide defeat of the developer's Measure A at the polls. Surely, that would send Caruso packing.

But there was a reason for the billionaire developer to stick around town.

After Measure A failed, the land use designation for 48 acres adjacent to the lagoon returned to Travel Services (TS). But, hell bent on continuing to make the lagoon-side property attractive to developers, the city asked that it be changed to VC (Visitor Commercial) when it submitted its LCP Amendment to the Coastal Commission in April.

While Mayor Matt Hall described the change as simply semantic, consolidating previous land use designations in the city's General Plan, Cori Schumacher took a closer look. She discovered the VC designation would have permitted mixed use residential/commercial development on the 48-acre site. Thanks to her discovery, 140 Carlsbadians wrote to the Coastal Commission to object to the inclusion of mixed use residential development for that property, as well as the site of the soon to be shut down Encina Power Plant, part of which the city wants to be changed from Public Utility to VC.

The day before the Coastal Commission's May meeting citizen activist Amanda Mascia discovered the city's VC designation would allow shopping centers on both the 48 acre lagoon-side site and the power plant property, despite the will of the people in defeating Measure A.

At the commission's May 11 meeting Mascia produced a copy of an April 6, 2016 memo from Jennifer Jesser, Senior City Planner, to City Manager Kevin Crawford. Jesser advised Crawford the change from TS (also referred to as "TR" by the commission) to VC is appropriate because, "Commercial development in Carlsbad since 1994 has shown that visitors are also served (and drawn to the city) by specialty, visitor-serving and attracting retail developments, such as the Carlsbad Premium Outlets and The Forum Carlsbad."

Mascia's testimony spurred Commissioner Diaz to ask commission staff what changes would be allowed in changing TR to VC. She referred to the staff report submitted with the meeting's agenda that called on the city to "initiate a comprehensive assessment of the city's current stock of visitor serving uses before an implementation plan and zoning for the VC land use designation could be approved."

Diaz pinned down staffer Toni Ross, Coastal Program Analyst, with the question, "Would changing from TR to VC allow shopping centers?" Despite the city planner's April 6 memo, Ross claimed VC wouldn't add anything more to what is already allowed for TR because the TR allows for retail shopping. He declined to answer whether the changed designation would allow regional shopping centers to be built there. Without explaining how, Ross echoed Mayor Hall's claim that the change would be an improvement simply by "consolidating land use" designations.

For their part, the mayor and assistant city manager chose not to respond at all to Diaz's request for clarification. Their silence spoke louder than words. Let them guess what we've hidden under Visitor Commercial after we've shuffled the shells of TS, TR and RC.

Seeking closure, Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb explained, "Today's decision is on land use only, not zoning, which would have to be addressed later, after comprehensive review of visitor serving uses in the city." She recommended the exclusion of the land use change for the two properties in question if the commission believes the VC designation "is not consistent with the City's General Plan."

Four votes were taken. The first was to reject the original proposal submitted by the city. The other three involved excluding the two properties in question from land use changes and approving the city's LCP Amendment with mapping modifications recommended by staff and previously agreed to by the city.

The Coastal Commission's approval of the city's LCP with modifications was celebrated as a victory by the citizen activists attending the meeting. Without excluding the two properties, the VC land use designation would have allowed shopping malls, as well as mixed use residential/commercial development if supporting implementation and zoning plans were later approved by the Coastal Commission.

The city's website, reporting the vote of the commission, "Coastal Commission Approves Land Use Updates" is more of a face-saving gesture by elected officials than helpful information for their constituents. There's no explanation of why the commission "deferred approval" of the VC land use changes, no mention of the commission meeting's debate over whether shopping centers and homes could be built on those two properties, only a vague reference to needing "more time to consider clarifications." No mention was made of the commission's call for a "comprehensive analysis and inventory of current visitor serving uses."

At the City Council's May 17 meeting Mayor Hall told Christine Wright and Vickey Syage, public speakers who criticized the city's presentation to the Coastal Commission, that he and staff would be happy to meet with anyone who would like to hear about the decision, and that understanding the commission's ruling was a "matter of semantics, and it's important for everyone to be on the same page."

For starters he could explain why he resorted to a shell game with the California Coastal Commission to hide incentives for greedy developers.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Will Challengers in Carlsbad Council Race Change City Politics?

Evidence of Big Money Guiding Council Decisions

Five candidates have declared their intention to challenge the two at-large incumbents in Carlsbad's city council election in November. If they want to bring real change, beyond the addition of new faces, to the city's go-along-to-get-along political cronyism, they should also lobby for a new city ordinance to limit the amount and source of campaign donations from individuals, business interests and special interest groups, beginning with the 2018 election.

That's when the three other council members, who did the most damage to the council's credibility in the last two years, will be up for reelection. There's plenty of evidence big money, much of it from out of town, guides the decisions of these city leaders.

Mayor Matt Hall's 2014 campaign collected $9,500 from five donors who ponied up at least $1,000, the largest a $5,000 donation from Jimmy Ukegawa, the owner of the strawberry fields and the one person, other than billionaire L.A. developer Rick Caruso, who had the most to gain from a shopping mall on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Hall's four other deep pocket donors were executives with connections to the city's Grand Pacific Resort hotels.

Councilmember Michael Schumacher (no relation to city council candidate Cori Schumacher) was the King of Collections from high-roller donors to his 2014 campaign, amassing $23,760 in contributions of $1,000 or more from eleven donors. 

Jimmy Ukegawa was his greatest benefactor at $4,260. Brian Rupp, the President of Shopoff Realty Investments, based in Irvine, California, kicked in another $2,650. That's the firm with its eye on property east of Ponto Beach in south Carlsbad, where Rupp proposes to build 191 apartment and luxury townhomes, a public plaza, shops, and restaurants. Cameron Hulse, a Carlsbad orthodontist, added another $2,500 to Schumacher's campaign war chest.

Schumacher's eight other deep pocket donors included: Sharad Khandwala, the Solana Beach investor who brought the Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites to Palomar Airport Road; the California Association of Realtors; and an assortment of other commercial real estate owners and managers of property throughout the city.

Councilmember Mark Packard received a total of $3,500 in donations of $1,000 or more from three individuals to his 2014 campaign. His largest was $1,500 from Sharad Khandwala (see above). The other two included a San Diego Commercial Real Estate Services firm and a San Diego General Building Contractor.

Carlsbad's not alone in North San Diego County in attracting big money from out-of-towners. There's no limit to campaign contributions in Oceanside, either. Jerry Kern, a candidate for re-election to the city Council in 2014, collected $5,000 from L.A.'s California Real Estate Political Action Committee and another $3,500 from the Building Industry Association of San Diego, among his supporters who gave $1,000 or more to his campaign.

Another Oceanside city council member, Gary Felien, got $5,000 from the California Real Estate PAC and another $5,000 from Ure Kretowics, a LaJolla real estate developer, for his 2014 re-election campaign.

Meanwhile, Carlsbad's three neighboring cities to the south and east all have campaign contribution limits. Vista's $440 limit applies to all contributors, whether they are a business, committee, group or individual. San Marcos and Encinitas limit campaign donors to no more than $250.

Kristin Gaspar's 2014 Encinitas mayoral campaign raised about $30,000. I didn't count the number of her donors, but the city's $250 limit means she had to have at least 120 to produce that amount of money. It took the Carlsbad Three a mere 18 donations to raise almost $37,000.

To Carlsbad's credit, its website is the most accessible and transparent of any other North County city to campaign donations and statements of economic interests of elected officials.

You can get there with only three clicks, beginning with the homepage tab labeled, "City Hall." Click on "Open Government," then "Disclosure and Ethics," then choose from either "Statement of Economic Interests Filings" or "Campaign Financial Disclosure Statements" to examine official reports of a given public official or candidate.

The Carlsbad citizen activists who defeated a billionaire developer at the polls despite being outspent 100 to 1, should turn their attention now, not only to replacing the council's old guard beginning in November, but to reforming campaign financing that invites corruption.

They can begin today by lobbying for limits to the dollar amount allowed and source of support of the city's political campaigns. Leaders who owe their success to big money from a few out of town interests can hardly be expected to act in the best interests of the majority of their constituents.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Citizen Activists Spawn Carlsbad's Political Revolution

While outsiders Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attack insider politics at the national level, a rapidly growing number of local citizen activists, who Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall once claimed were controlled by outside agitators, have launched a political revolution of their own. It began on August 25, 2015, when the City Council ignored the objections of an overflow crowd of residents calling for a special election to decide whether a billionaire L.A. developer would be entrusted with the future of the city's pristine Agua Hedionda Lagoon for the next 30 years.

The Council had three choices that evening. They could put off their decision for thirty days to seek citizen input, they could call a special election, or they could approve the project. They voted unanimously to approve it. Outraged opponents gathered enough signatures to overrule the council's decision and put the matter up for a vote. Measure A, supporting the council's decision to allow the developer to build a shopping mall at the lagoon, was easily defeated, thanks to an army of volunteer political activists.

The defeat of Measure A turned out to be a watershed moment for city politics. The explosion of social media sites, packed city Council meetings, a proliferation of speakers at those meetings, the mayor's attempts to silence audience applause for those speakers, the demand for an apology from the mayor for his support of the billionaire developer, all speak of the unrest facing city leaders.

To their credit, or maybe just because of the approaching election, the Council seems to be listening now. After Mayor Hall initially dragged his feet, the Council passed an ordinance banning the sale of puppy mill dogs. A decision was delayed on the Village and Barrio Master Plan until a parking study is completed next year. A promise was made not to seek any more advice from Dover, Kohl and Partners, the Florida consultants who developed the flawed $380,000 vision for the plan.

If Carlsbad's political revolution is to succeed it will require the support of many who voted yes on Measure A. The ban on the sale of puppy mill dogs built a coalition of supporters from the opposing sides of that vote. Judging from the posts on social media, there's also a growing consensus on the future of the village and barrio.

Take, for example, Thomas K. Arnold, a writer for the Seaside Courier and strong supporter of the Caruso lagoon mall project. He accused Measure A opponents of intentionally misleading voters. He's now being praised by them for his May 31 article, Carlsbad, let's remain a village. Maybe there's hope for him to join those who seek replacements of the Council's old guard.

The influence of outside interests on council members can be found in their statements of economic interests and campaign donations. The mayor, a major landowner in the city, stands to gain personally from the downtown's economic development. Two other council members not up for reelection in the fall received substantial support from out of town commercial real estate investors in their last campaigns.

Mayor Matt Hall lists on his 2015 Statement of Economic Interests Form the eight Carlsbad addresses where he owns rental property. The first is the Senor Grubby's building on Carlsbad Village Drive. The other seven are on Tyler Street. Five of them have estimated fair market values above $1 million.

Hall's 2014 mayoral campaign received a $249 donation from Shopoff Real Estate in Irvine, the firm proposing a mixed-use development with commercial space, restaurants, and 191 apartment and luxury townhomes in south Carlsbad, east of Ponto Beach. He got another $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet, a San Diego firm that manages the Carlsbad Research Center Association.

Council member Michael Schumacher received $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet, $2,650 from Shopoff Real Estate, $1,500 from Sharad Khwandala, President of Alps Group of Hotels, a San Diego based development/management company that brought the Holiday Inn Carlsbad and the nearby Staybridge Suites to Palomar Airport Road.

Council member Mark Packard got $1,500 from Sharad Khwandala, as well as another $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet.

I'm predicting the three will vote as one through 2017.

There are already five declared challengers for the other two seats in the November 8 election, in addition to the two incumbents. Unfortunately, the three Council members who aren't facing reelection until 2018 were the most outspoken supporters of the lagoon mall. But all five allowed their faces to be featured on the developer's glossy promotional mailers. If the two running for reelection keep their seats, don't expect change in the way the Council does business, at least not until 2018.

Incumbents Keith Blackburn and Lorraine Wood begin their campaigns well-funded by money carried over from their 2012 campaigns. Blackburn has a cash balance of $122,000. Woods has $12,400. The two share the services of an Oceanside resident, Mary Azevedo, as their campaign treasurer.

Their coffers were, no doubt, enhanced by a shared fundraiser on June 2nd at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort and Spa, hosted by Grand Pacific Resorts, whose executives contributed $4,000 to Mayor Hall's 2014 campaign and another $3,000 to Michael Schumacher's. Those attending the event were expected to donate $250 to each of the two incumbents.

With seven candidates running for the two at-large seats, and those seats going to the top two vote getters, the danger to the city's political revolutionaries is that votes will be split among the five challengers, leaving the incumbents to get votes from their longtime supporters, plus those who recognize their names and don't want to take a chance on newcomers.

The power of the city's political establishment can be seen in the candidacy filing of Melanie Burkholder, the only candidate to list "Republican" to identify her political party for the non-partisan office. All others checked the "non-partisan" box.

More about all the candidates as election day approaches.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Carlsbad Council Outsources City's Future Again

This Time It's a Florida Consulting Firm



Over the last two years Carlsbad residents have watched city leaders squander more than $1 million to outsource the future of their Village by the Sea.

They fell in love with L.A. billionaire developer Rick Caruso's promises to transform the site of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon into a shopping mall magnet for $2.6 million in annual tax revenue, preserve strawberry fields already saved by Prop D, and build scenic trails, all at no cost to the city. After a citizens-led referendum overturned the City Council's unanimous support of the project, the Council ponied up $650,000 for a special election that allowed voters to send Caruso packing.

In March 2014, while Caruso courted council members, the city signed a $380,000 contract with Dover, Kohl and Partners, a Florida consulting firm, to create the Carlsbad Village and Barrio Master Plan to update the Carlsbad Village Master Plan and Design Manual, the one that was written by city planners and approved in June 2013. The 2016 plan is currently under review by the city's Planning Commission. You can find it online for public comment.

It's important to recognize the difference between Caruso's project and the DKP plan. His was an off-the-shelf proposal, deceptively fast-tracked as a "citizens' initiative" to avoid the scrutiny of state and local review. The city could not modify Caruso's project for 30 years. The DKP plan, by contrast, is working its way through the regular Planning Commission/public review/council approval process.

The consulting firm has been paid only to produce a 20-year plan, which the city may do with what it pleases. Whether it's approved, altered or trashed, KDP pockets its fee and walks away happy, already touting its Carlsbad plan on its website as it trolls for its next client.

What Caruso and DKP have in common is their superficial understanding of the people whose lives will be affected by their work. Voters made that clear to Caruso. The consulting firm reveals this in its 1.4 Economic Analysis Overview, using outdated sources from the 2010 U.S. Census and 2008-2012 American Community Survey, when it could have checked out SANDAG data, the best source for a current picture of Carlsbad's demographics.

While KDP breaks down housing numbers into only two types: "family households" and "non-family households," SANDAG provides numbers on several housing types: single-family, multiple, detached, mobile, and multiple family. DKP lists only the median age of residents, while SANDAG gives totals within ten-year age groups.

Maybe that explains the consulting firm's patronizing attitude in the plan's introduction: "It's time for the village to become a town." That assumes most Carlsbad residents, like all developers, believe growth is always a good thing. But with a projected buildout population of 130,000 by 2035, with 22,000 more residents, 7,000 more dwelling units, and 1,900 additional hotel rooms over the next 20 years, there's reason to fear the kind of growth that could bring wealth to the city at the cost of its quality of life.

At the Planning Commission's April 13 meeting Senior Planner Scott Donnell pointed out that the DKP plan is only a revision of the 2013 Village Master Plan to both "revitalize the Village and rejuvenate the Barrio." He promised it did not propose changes in density from the 2013 plan, nor "significant changes to building standards."

But, like beauty, "significant changes" are in the eyes of the beholder. Here's one I'd call "significant." The 2013 plan's building height maximum in the Village Center p. 110 is 45', which applies to both pitched and flat-roofed buildings. The revised plan allows mixed used buildings in the Core District 6.2.8 to rise to 55'. Donnell told me later that the consultants did not propose that increase. Developers met with planning staff to ask that the plan to be revised to accommodate pitched roofs in mixed use buildings, since ceilings on the first floor have to be higher for commercial uses.

That would allow three of the four stories to be residential, rather than two. That makes profitability, not pitched roofs, the real reason developers want taller buildings.

And that's the first of my two major problems with the plan. Adding rows of 55' high buildings along State Street, Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad Village Drive and Grand Avenue will create the concrete canyons, cutting off views of the sky and blocking the sun, that characterize big cities. That will destroy the quaint ambience of a town, much less a village.

My second problem is with moving forward to approve the plan before the Comprehensive Parking Study is delivered next year. The claim that changes to the plan can be made later is easier said than done if building permits have already been issued. Developers are most likely ready to descend on City Hall the day the plan is signed.

There are parts of the plan I like: Connecting the Barrio with the Village, traffic calming, more trees, a more pedestrian-friendly, rather than car-friendly downtown, plazas, a Grand Avenue Promenade, well-designed and toll-free parking structures, a tunnel under I-5 to connect Grand Avenue with streets east of the village, improved beach access, roundabouts and public art.

This is a 20-year plan, so, unlike Caruso's project, it will be open to changes over time. Time to add a diversity of community talent to the city council, adding elected officials less disposed to allowing developers and out-of-town consultants to shape Carlsbad's future.

When my wife and I arrived here 20 years ago, escaping an Indiana winter, we wanted to roll up the city's welcome mat and lock the door to paradise. Since that's not possible, we're counting on Carlsbad to grow in a sustainable, people-friendly way. The citizen activism that drove Caruso out of town gives me hope.