LA MESA GIVES GREEN LIGHT TO SILVERGATE’S LITTLE FLOWER HAVEN DEVELOPMENT, FATE OF DESIGN REVIEW BOARD IN QUESTION

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By Jonathan Goetz

September 14, 2017 (La Mesa) – The La Mesa City Council gave the green light to Silvergate’s 130-unit apartment development at the site of the former Little Flower Haven Convent on La Mesa Blvd., reversing their earlier 2-2 deadlock.  The item passed 4-0 with Councilman Colin Parent recused because he lives near the site.

The development sparked mass opposition from neighbors, primarily due to a parking variance that allowed 193 parking spaces under a  State "density bonus" law as opposed to 260 spaces under La Mesa municipal code, because 10% of the project will be affordable housing units.

Council insisted their hands were tied and that they risked jail time if they didn’t approve the development.  The reversal comes after the developer’s lawyer sent a letter threatening to sue the city if Council would not approve the project.

Mayor Mark Arapostathis, in switching his August no vote, said, “The law is flawed… I asked and I kept saying, what happens next? Then I was told we’ll go to court and based on the other cases and our communication with the state, we’ll lose. And what happens next? We’ll pay attorney’s fees, I said ok, well that’s money and that will hurt, but then what happens? Then we’ll be directed by the state to approve this. And then I said, and then when we refuse? Then you’ll be held in contempt of court, each one of you.”

Councilman Guy McWhirter said, “I wish I had the power that many of you in this room think that I have, as a City Councilman. I don’t have it. I can’t go against the state. I can’t go against the law, none of us up here can, and we’ve been asked by numerous people to do that. The end result is going to jail. You know, I’ll argue and I’ll fight, but I’m not going to go to jail for this.”

Public speakers called the developer a bully, but also received assurances from Silvergate representative Ian Gill that the tenant leases would include clauses that exclude parking in the Porter Hill neighborhood, which has lots of narrow streets and one car garages.

Councilman Bill Baber wanted this parking clause inserted into the agreement, but City Attorney Glenn Sabine said, “I think that’s between the parties to rely on good faith.”

Vice Mayor Kristine Alessio said, “I view this the same as I did before,” and moved the item, seconded by McWhirter, who also had voted yes in August.

Baber said, “The issue that caused me to vote last time was I did not believe that the decision from the Design Review Board’s was valid,” and the Council discussed the future of the Design Review Board.

One disgruntled La Mesa resident told ECM she views the Council's approval  to be  "a total dereliction of leadership. If they feel they are really compelled by state law, they should take the lead to organize with other jurisdictions to get state laws changed."

The yes votes on the Design Review Board’s 3-2 approval of Little Flower Haven came from two members of La Mesa City Staff and a third person whom had worked for the developer doing architectural work just 16 months prior to the vote.

Baber emphasized that there is a conflict of interest if a board member has been paid by a developer within the last 24 months, not just the last 12 months as dictated by State Law, but City Attorney Sabine insisted there was no way to strengthen the conflict of interest rules since state law is so comprehensive on the subject.

Based on the discussion, it appears that Council members Alessio, Baber and Parent are open to eliminating the Design Review Board and transferring its design review process to the Planning Commission. Mayor Arapostathis and Councilman McWhirter want to keep the Design Review Board but remove as voting members La Mesa city staff.

Staff will bring two proposals back to the Council, one to eliminate the Design Review Board and transfer its design review process to the Planning Commission, and another to eliminate as voting members of the Design Review Board La Mesa city staff.

Most public comment was in support of keeping the Design Review Board but removing as voting members city staff.

There was a split vote at Tuesday’s meeting on how to vote on key measures at the League of California Cities.

Baber is the City’s representative, and told Council, “Both of these are about giving us local control. The first one is we would like to talk to the State about all of the local consequences of all these various laws and initiatives that have been passed, because I’m not sure the folks at the State realize how it feels on the street. The second one is dealing on the fire side,  and the rules for who determines some of the allocation of assets were written in 1957.”

Parent dissented, suggesting leaving fire and ambulance response times up to local governments could harm public safety. “The local control one suggests… that the League doesn’t think that we should have state standards for minimum staffing and response times for fire and EMS services,” he said. “I don’t agree with that.”

The consideration of the League of California Cities resolutions that will be voted on at the annual conference in Sacramento on September 13-15 passed 4-1, with Parent opposed.

Parent also insisted on the resolution authorizing the emergency purchase and installation of broadcast production system hardware, as well as a waiver of the competitive bidding process that Council meetings be livestreamed on social media platforms such as Facebook to accommodate people who don’t have cable. It passed with mixed reassurances from Yvonne Garrett 5-0.

Parent also tried to build consensus around a climate action plan during the item with AECOM for professional services to prepare a climate action plan for La Mesa, saying “I want to make sure we’re all on the same page, that we want an enforceable climate action plan.”

The main consensus was that subcommittees should bring regular, staggered updates to the full Council.

At the meeting, the Council voted 5-0 to cut road maintenance by “less than 2%,” and skipped the presentation explaining the cuts out of respect for the people in the audience waiting for the Design Review Board discussion.

Council also voted 5-0 to take out $7 million in a state revolving loan for a sewer project at Parkway Drive and Alvarado Road crossing Interstate 8 to be paid back at $420,000 per year for 20 years. Loan payments begin in one year and will be calculated into next year’s sewer rates. La Mesa was fined over $800,000 when the sewer overflowed during a 2010 storm.

There was also a presentation by La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez on crime. Crime is down through the second quarter of this year compared to 2016. However, towards the end of his presentation, Vasquez said, “We’ve seen some upticks in crime,” which means the six-month downward crime rate trend may not be continuing into the third quarter. The full crime report can be found here.

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