The board last month voted 7-5 in support of the grand jury finding released May 24 that the church is not compatible with local land-use plans.
Under the grand jury recommendation, the 3,500-seat church and academy would potentially be forced to close while the city’s Development Services Department reviews whether the church is appropriate in Liberty Station. The action could leave thousands of worshipers and hundreds of students from pre-kindergarden through high school in the lurch.
Under state law, Mayor Jerry Sanders has until Aug. 22 to agree to implement the recommendation, explain why the recommendation is unwarranted or ask for an extension. The mayor is under no obligation to heed the vote of the PCPB, which has only an advisory role to the city.
The July 19 PCPB vote may have been more lopsided than the 7-5 tally would suggest, because even some board members who voted “no” seemed to agree with the grand jury’s most damning finding: “Traffic congestion, parking problems, the need for a street closure … are directly related to a church not being compatible for the Liberty Station area.”
Church officials disputed the charges, and said the church had taken big steps to help manage the thousands who attend one of the five services on Sundays.
Mark Stevens, the church’s chief operating officer, said the church has a paid traffic-control staff and dozens of volunteers to direct cars away from neighborhood streets and into 1,500 spaces at five schools and offices.
“We also voluntarily post ‘No Church Parking’ signs along the neighborhood streets and in front of the nearby merchants,” Stevens said.
But Bonnie Mann, a Liberty Station resident, said churchgoers have been known to scoff at such measures.
“They park where they’re not supposed to, and get very nasty about it when they’re questioned,” Mann said. “I’ve had people take up a sign and throw it, saying, ‘Oh, we know we can’t get ticketed on Sunday.’”
Jean Nemer, another Liberty Station resident, called the closure of Truxtun Road every Sunday under a special-events permit a “terrible imposition … in our neighborhood.”
“I grew up in Chicago,” said Nemer. “The biggest churches downtown never closed Michigan Avenue.”
But Stevens said closing Truxtun Road was a decision by police, not the church.
“(Police) continually monitor traffic flows during our services and events to ensure compliance and we receive high marks from them for our continued efforts,” Stevens said.
He said traffic and parking issues were addressed when the city issued the conditional-use permit in 2004 and said a church and school are not forbidden under the underlying commercial zoning at the site.
Stevens also said church members contributed 250,000 hours in community service last year.
“The most unfortunate part of this grand jury report is it takes us away from our core mission as a church: to serve San Diego,” Stevens said.
But PCPB board member Patricia Clark said she had been frustrated trying to get information that would back up the church’s claims of compliance in traffic and parking matters, and charged the church’s volunteerism came with a catch.
“When you talk about volunteer projects and your interest in the community, we know that’s for favoritism. Please don’t do that to us, because we’re not stupid,” Clark said.
Some board members suggested the church received a sweetheart deal when the permit, which does not require renewal, was granted, because traffic restrictions only apply during the week when students attend the academy.
With a church membership of more than 12,000 and five services each Sunday, the permit’s limit of 4,020 car trips per day would be easily exceeded if it were to be applied to church days, said board member Nancy Graham.
While eventually voting “no” to allow more time to study relevant documents, Graham said, “One could conclude this is a very, very well-crafted (permit) in the advantage of the church. It’s impressive.”
Marcela Escobar, principal at Atlantis Group, a land-use and strategic-planning consulting firm with an office at Liberty Station, said most of the traffic concerns at the time of the permit were about the effect on weekday commutes, not weekends.
And board member Allen Jones, a former city planning official, said it’s not uncommon for a church to get a conditional-use permit that lacks a sunset clause.
But Chairman Geoff Page said much of the church’s opposition has resulted from its own operational decisions. The church originally said it would have two services each on Saturday and Sunday, Page said.
“People were able to accept that,” he said. “But when you started to operate the church, the Saturday services went away and moved to Sunday. For a lot of people, that was a little tough to take. When you packed them all on Sunday, you kind of shot yourselves in the foot,” he said.
OTHER PCPB MATTERS
• Cal Jones and Matt Traino introduced themselves and made their pitch for an opening on the PCPB. The board will decide among the pair at its next monthly meeting Aug. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Hervey/Point Loma Branch Library, 3701 Voltaire St. The winner will fill the remaining term of Tyler Hempel, who won a three-year term last March but never attended a meeting. He reportedly moved out of state.
• In a seeming instant-replay of a decision in September, the board voted 11-0-1 in opposition to a plan to build three new houses on a 1.46-acre parcel at
414 La Crescentia Drive that was once owned by jeweler and community leader Joseph Jessop. When the previous proposal called for only two houses atop the windy La Playa-neighborhood road last year, several neighbors expressed concerns about lack of emergency-vehicle access and increased density. The same neighbors expressed those concerns this time around and the measure was defeated by a greater margin than before. Robert Furey of REC Consultants, Inc. said the two-house proposal last September was scaled back from what he wanted originally and, since he couldn’t get the community’s support after making such a gesture, he has reverted to the three-house proposal.
• The addition of a sidewalk cafe for Garbardine restaurant, 1005 Rosecrans St., earned a thumbs-up from the board. Planners voted 10-1-1 in favor of a neighborhood-use permit for nearly 200 square feet of outdoor seating at the restaurant that opened earlier this year at the corner of Rosecrans and Talbot streets. Representatives for the building owner, OliverMcMillan, said they reduced the proposed area by nearly two-thirds in response to concerns about pedestrians walking around the cafe and cars making a right-hand turn at the corner.
• There are no plans to begin meetings with the pledge of allegiance, Page said in response to a question from a citizen. Though some boards have opted to recite the pledge — and though the PCPB did so under the leadership of its two previous chairs — there are no requirements in the board’s bylaws or procedures, Page said. “No problem. I didn’t know. I’d just gotten so used to doing it,” said Donna Kaup, former board member who asked about the matter during the portion of the meeting devoted to comments from the public on non-agenda items. Neither of the other two local planning boards — Ocean Beach and North Bay (Midway) — begin their meetings with the pledge.