The City Council unanimously approved the updated Ocean Beach Community plan on July 29, putting tighter restrictions on exceptions for proposed bulky, out-of-scale housing developments. The plan has not been updated since 1975. Photo by Tony de Garate
Making the firmest possible statement in support of promoting the community’s small-scale character, the San Diego City Council on July 29 approved a long-sought document designed to guide and regulate growth in Ocean Beach for the next 20 years — and guard against exceptions that allow bulky, out-of-scale housing.
The surprising 9-0 vote to approve a replacement to the outdated 1975 Ocean Beach Community Plan — the oldest planning document in the city — capped an, at times, agonizing process that began in 2002.
After years of public meetings, consultant reports, studies and feedback, the only issue remaining that caused citizens to choose up sides was a staff recommendation to include tough-talking language designed to discourage variances to Ocean Beach's unusually strict land development code.
What makes Ocean Beach’s code so restrictive is known as the .7 FAR rule, which limits the square footage of nearly all residential housing west of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard to 70 percent of lot size, or floor-area ratio, and further requires 25 percent of that amount to be set aside for enclosed parking. Except in Point Loma, the same zoning throughout the rest of San Diego allows 120 percent of FAR.
What was expected to be a Battle Royale ended up being a no-contest. After listening to just over an hour of public testimony — more than 80 citizens asked to address the council, though most ceded their time to other speakers — councilmembers deliberated for just 15 minutes before approving the plan and its anti-variance language.
In unanimously adopting the city staff’s recommendation, councilmembers rejected language more sympathetic to variance-seekers that had been proposed unanimously two months earlier by the San Diego Planning Commission.
District 2 City Councilmember Ed Harris praised members of the Ocean Beach Planning Board's Update Committee, city planning staff and the City Attorney's Office that worked on the anti-variance language that the Planning Commission later rejected.
“It is my firm belief that the Planning Commission got it very wrong. So we need to right that today,” Harris said.
After the vote, a sea of Ocean Beach citizens wearing blue T-shirts with the message “Keep the OBcean attitude” stood and applauded lustily, savoring the occasion for nearly 30 seconds.
The council was clearly influenced by the full-court-press effort of the plan proponents, who had gathered more than 3,500 signatures in favor of the anti-variance language. Proponents also did a better job of getting their side to the meeting. In terms of citizens who signed up to speak, they outnumbered opponents by a 3-to-1 ratio.
Gretchen Kinney Newsom, president of the Ocean Beach Town Council, underscored the point when she listed and described the eight community groups that had gone on record in support: the Planning Board, Town Council, Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, Ocean Beach Historical Society, Friends of the OB Library, Ocean Beach Community Foundation, Ocean Beach Community Development Corporation and Ocean Beach Women's Club.
“We are not a special-interest group. We are Ocean Beach,” she said.
The plan won't be legally binding until approval by the California Coastal Commission at a future date. At least one opponent said delays could result from lawsuits and charged the plan denied the rights of property owners.
David Stebbins owns a three-story house in the 5100 block of West Point Loma Boulevard, a block that used to be dominated by a string of one-story, concrete duplexes built in the 1950s. Stebbins was the first of three property owners in the block to use the variance process to build a new house allotting the entire .7 FAR for living space and drop the garage requirement, substituting a carport instead.
Stebbins responded to criticism that the newer, three-story houses on the block obstructed ocean views and looked out of place.
“(People think) somehow Ocean Beach is going to be Mission Beach. I don't want it to be like Mission Beach. But we have property rights,” he said.
Stebbins referenced the community plan in Barrio Logan, which was overturned in a citywide vote after City Council approval, and suggested a similar fate awaits the Ocean Beach plan.
“Whenever a community plan purports to change ownership rights, you've got legal problems ...This is going to get tied up like Barrio Logan. And we don't want that,” he said.
Debbie Applebee, who described herself as a West Point Loma Boulevard resident who wants to improve her property, said she feared the plan would lessen her ability to do so.
She said she spent an hour interviewing people at Dog Beach asking what they thought of the houses on West Point Loma built through the variance process.
“Overwhelmingly, they said the new homes improved the neighborhood,” she said.
Deterring the ability to make improvements carried negative consequences, she said.
“One person told me their family had renamed the OB community, 'Where the Debris Meets the Sea,' ” she said.
But Peter Ruscitti, who chairs the Ocean Beach Planning Board, said the West Point Loma variances met opposition because the city granted them without following its own rules.
“Our desire is not to prevent new homes being built. Our desire is that they be built in accordance with the code,” he said.
Giovanni Ingolia, who co-chairs the Update Committee, echoed the sentiment. He said variances require unique circumstances that deny reasonable use to a property owner, and said the same circumstances on West Point Loma could apply to hundreds of other parcels.
“We are concerned about the pattern of one-by-one variances,” Ingolia said.
Mindy Pellisier, one of the leaders of the plan update effort since the beginning, said Ocean Beach has been resisting efforts to conform to the rest of the city and give up its zoning restrictions for more than three decades.
“The .7 FAR is different from the rest of the city," she said.."Yeah, we know. This has been and continues to be our intention,” she said. "You know OB's unique. It's been planned that way ...Yes, we have small, unusual lots. They've been there for over 100 years.”