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Community leaders near new trolley stations sue to block plans allowing dense, mid-rise housing
By David Garrick, October 31, 2019

Litigation aims to overturn ‘specific’ plans the San Diego council approved in August

SAN DIEGO — Two separate resident groups have filed lawsuits seeking to block new growth blueprints that will allow mid-rise housing and dense urban villages in neighborhoods near new trolley stops in Linda Vista and the northeast corner of Pacific Beach.

The groups don’t oppose allowing dense development along a new trolley line connecting Old Town and La Jolla; they just want to ensure that growth isn’t so intense that it damages community character, the lawsuits say.

Morena United, a group of residents and merchants near new trolley stations in Linda Vista, filed suit against the Morena Corridor Specific Plan.

And Friends of Rose Creek, a group of residents and environmentalists devoted to protecting that eastern Pacific Beach creek, filed suit against the Balboa Avenue Station Area Specific Plan.

The City Council adopted both plans on Aug. 1. City officials have characterized them as companion documents because both encourage mid-rise housing along the new trolley line, which is scheduled to begin operating in fall 2021.

City Attorney Mara Elliott, through a spokeswoman, said she will consult with city officials and respond to the lawsuits in the courts.

The lawsuits, both filed by Escondido environmental attorney Everett Delano, contend the city failed to adequately study the impacts of the plans on community aesthetics, character, traffic, safety and public views.

The suits also say the city failed to consider feasible alternatives and mitigation measures that could have softened the impacts of the zoning changes included in the two plans.

The prospects for such lawsuits were strengthened in August when the state Supreme Court ruled that San Diego had failed to adequately analyze the potential impacts of its 2014 marijuana dispensary law.

The court ruled unanimously that local governments, when adopting new laws or zoning changes, must analyze reasonably foreseeable changes those laws would make to the environment — even if the changes would be indirect.

Community opposition to the two specific plans has been fiercest against the increased density and greater building heights the plans allow.

Supporters of the plans, including the local development community and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, say the new zoning will help solve San Diego’s housing crisis, reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change and revamp blighted areas where bicyclists and pedestrians face major challenges.

They say it would be a significant missed opportunity not to allow tall apartment buildings and condominiums along the $2 billion Morena Boulevard trolley line.

In the Linda Vista area, the plan lifts the building height limit for housing projects from 45 feet to 65 feet near the existing Linda Vista/Morena trolley station and up to 100 feet near the new Tecolote station.

In northeastern Pacific Beach, the 30-foot coastal height limit will remain in place, but the plan allows projects with significantly greater numbers of housing units per acre.

The suit filed by Friends of Rose Creek is less about blocking dense growth and more about pursuing the group’s goal of making the Rose Creek watershed dedicated parkland.

The group lobbied for that before the Balboa Ave Station plan was approved, contending the increased growth allowed by the plan made it crucial to add new parkland in a strategic spot.

City officials, however, say they plan to wait roughly 10 years to make the Rose Creek area dedicated parkland.

“The concern we have is the area is in a floodway with non-native species,” city parks official Andy Field said during the Aug. 1 public hearing that preceded the council’s unanimous approval of the plan.

“Before we’d want to look at dedicating, we’d want to have the area cleaned up,” he said. “There’s too many things wrong with it right now.”

Another issue, city officials said, is that some pieces of land along Rose Creek aren’t owned by the city. Some are private property, and some are owned by the federal government.

The Balboa Station specific plan aims to transform a 210-acre area in northeastern Pacific Beach from an auto-oriented commercial corridor into a dense residential village surrounding the new trolley station.

It would increase the number of housing units allowed in the area near the Balboa Avenue station from 1,221 to 4,729. That’s a near quadrupling of what current zoning allows, and six times the 763 housing units already there.

It would also break up the “megablock” between I-5 and Mission Bay Drive that extends from Garnet to Bunker Hill Street. The goal is fostering a traditional street grid to ease commuting to the trolley. That area is dominated by auto dealers, gas stations, budget motels and fast-food chains.

The plan affecting Linda Vista covers 280 acres that follow the path of the new trolley line then extend east to include the existing Linda Vista/Morena trolley station on the green line.

It would increase the number of housing units allowed in the area from 1,386 to 7,016. That’s about five times what current zoning allows and seven times the 996 housing units already there.

The two new trolley stations included in the plan will be where Morena Boulevard crosses Clairemont Drive and where Morena Boulevard crosses Tecolote.

The plan aims to transform a mostly blighted industrial area into a dense trolley-oriented village.

Delano, the attorney who filed both lawsuits, said there are no plans to seek immediate injunctions from Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor, who is overseeing both cases.



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