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Solimar Research

San Diego To Disband Planning Department, Again

Jun 1, 2011

Even if it takes a village to raise a child, apparently it does not take a planning department to raise a village. Or even a city of villages. 

The City of San Diego's Planning Department won national acclaim for its 2008 "City of Villages" general plan update, which was guided by outgoing Planning Director Bill Anderson and his predecessor, Gail Goldberg. But budget constraints have compelled Mayor Jerry Sanders to order that the department be shut down and merged with the Development Services Department. 

Sanders hopes that the newly merged departments will operate as an efficient unit for a projected savings of $1 million annually. The city is facing a $179 million budget deficit for 2011.  

Sanders' structure mimics that of 1995-2000, when the two departments were combined, also for fiscal reasons. Planning regained its independence as it embarked on the process to update the city's general plan in the early 2000s. 

The new merger has prompted the resignation of Anderson, who stepped down May 27. He will be taking a position in the private sector with planning giant AECOM. (Prior to becoming planning director, Anderson was a longtime principal at AECOM's predecessor firm, Economic Research Associates, and a San Diego city planning commissioner.) Anderson said that his personal focus is on long-range planning and economic development. 

The new, combined department will be headed by Development Services Director Kelly Broughton. 

Though much of the city's advance planning work has already been done, many community plans have yet to be completed. Some fear that by allowing planning to be subsumed by Development Services, which is focused on case processing rather than forward planning—and generates its own funding from developers' fees rather than from the city's general fund—these community plans and the overall vision for the city could suffer if planning becomes too businesslike. 

"They look at applicants as their customers," said Leo Wilson, chair of the city's Community Planners Committee, which advises the Planning Department. "That's not a bad thing for the department to do that. But planning should be for the city. It's a more esoteric process."

It's a process that could become even more esoteric if the city's budget crisis precludes the implementation of the community plans, especially with regards to public services, amenities, and infrastructure. 

Anderson believes, however, that the new department will have no trouble picking up on the  Planning Department's ongoing work programs. 

"We've kind of set the table already," said Anderson. "We're handing off about 10 community plans (in-progress), so there's enough to keep people busy for 2-3 years."  The city has 51 community planning areas in total. 

For developers, the combined department may lead to a more streamlined development process and save money for everyone—not just for the city. Representatives of the San Diego County Building Industry Association have reportedly said that lack of coordination between Planning and Development Services has unnecessarily hampered development. 

Broughton did not respond to an interview request. 

The move also includes changes to the mission statement of the Development Services Department. The revised DSD mission statement does away with the Planning Department's goal "to envision, plan, implement and maintain a sustainable city," and instead pledges to provide "safe, effective, and quality development…through community planning." It does not elaborate on a vision for "community planning."  

"The focus would be different," said Anderson. "We in our City Planning and Community Investment Department were very much a proactive planning department where we're trying to envision and then implement economic development and redevelopment." 

Anderson said, however, that under his tenure the department has already changed the city's approach to planning and that most of the major work—especially as it relates to SB 375—is already enshrined in the 2008 general plan. 

"We've had to the change a lot of the methodologies or approaches to community plans, because a lot of the policies that were in place were really geared towards and development as opposed to urban infill," said Anderson. 

For the new department to continue in that vein, said Wilson, the planners doing the long-term planning must be functionally separated from those doing day-to-day development services. He said that there is a perception that some applicants wield influence in the department and that the city planning process must remain focused on the good of the city as a whole and not on the need of individual developers. 

"I think it's more of an issue of separating the planning process from the development approvals process," said Wilson.  "They need to build up sort of an invisible firewall."