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A General Plan of Destruction

40 years of preservation progress at risk

By Bruce Coons

The city's single successful incentive to protect our historic resources is the Mills Act. Last month the Mayor of San Diego presented his plan for reforming the Mills Act. His misguided focus on this minor line item in the city's budget was the false claim that Mills Act contracts result in some tax loss to the community. This is an argument filled with factual errors, which resulted in erroneous conclusions and proposed remedies that would actually have tremendous negative impacts to both city revenues and the local economy.

The real story behind this push to destroy or render useless the Mills Act, is that the Building Industry Association (BIA), the development industry's lobbyist, has been pressuring the Mayor to pave the way for wholesale development in our historic neighborhoods. The BIA has been very public with great concern that they are running out of land on which to build and without the ability to scrape our historic neighborhoods they will be out of business.

SOHO has explained in detail the many ways that the BIA's members can continue to have sustainable growth while preserving and enhancing our city. However, this requires a paradigm shift in their thinking and they seem to want none of it. What they do want is the ability to run roughshod over the hopes, needs and desires of our communities for their short term financial gain resulting in permanent loss to all.

California's Office of Historic Preservation, (OHP) explains that the benefits to local governments are many, "The Mills Act allows local governments to design preservation programs to accommodate specific community needs and priorities for rehabilitating entire neighborhoods, encouraging seismic safety programs, contributing to affordable housing, promoting heritage tourism, or fostering pride of ownership. Local governments have adopted the Mills Act because they recognize the economic benefits of conserving resources and reinvestment as well as the important role historic preservation can play in revitalizing older areas, creating cultural tourism, building civic pride, and retaining the sense of place and continuity with the community's past."

So bleak is the picture...that the bulldozer and not the atomic bomb may turn out to be the most destructiive invention of the 20th century." - Philip Shaecott, New York Times Magazine, June 4, 1978

The assertion is that the city coffers are being adversely affected by a total tax break of $600,000 across the entire city, for the entire program. We think the mayor might want to look elsewhere for balancing the budget. He might want to begin, by looking at the money spent each year by the city to subsidize the building industry, an aberrant amount, and the compromises made to developers that leave communities without adequate infrastructure, a loss of integrity and an increased density that is not in keeping with the character of our neighborhoods. Juxtapose this with the Mills Act, a highly successful voluntary program that positively affects the quality and standards of life in communities. To be eligible for Mills Act a home must be designated first, and studies prove property values are higher for non-historic homes in the vicinity of designated homes or districts, providing a greater quality of life and additionally, an increase in property taxes overall.

While the Mayor's plan is off base, there are some areas of the Mills Act that can and should be improved. We are supporting a number of other reforms to the program; these reforms and others outlined in SOHO's recommendations are ones we have been advocating for years. Since these recommendations and response was issued to the City, SOHO has taken legal action on the city's General Plan including the Mill Act.

On April 14, 2008, SOHO sued the City of San Diego, challenging approval of the new General Plan and related amendments to its Land Development Code without compliance with state law protecting historic resources. The lawsuit also challenges the City's failure to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). San Diego County Superior Court Case No. 37-2008-00081864-CU-WM-CTL is now pending before Judge Ronald Prager.

The General Plan relies upon a mitigation framework to reduce impacts to historic resources. Mitigation includes, among other things, reliance on the Mills Act that provides tax incentives for rehabilitation of qualified historic properties. However, the City is already contemplating changes to its implementation of the Mills Act, upon recommendation of the Mayor that would significantly reduce protections to historic resources in contravention of law. While some of the changes proposed to the City's Mills Act program relative to monitoring and enforcement would be beneficial, some suggested changes would unlawfully reduce feasible mitigations of General Plan impacts to historic resources or are otherwise contrary to state law.

The lawsuit also claims that the EIR for the General Plan failed to include an adequate analysis of the environmental setting and of the impacts of build-out relative to historic, cultural, and archaeological resources; failed to identify areas most likely to face development-related impacts to historic resources; failed to identify and analyze feasible programmatic mitigation measures and a reasonable range of alternatives to address potentially significant impacts of the General Plan and its implementing ordinances on historic resources; and deferred adoption of programmatic mitigation to future study and to undefined community plans and the improperly deferred General Plan Action Plan.

We urgently require financial contributions to help pay for the legal, research and organizing efforts that are required in order to protect our region's treasures and identity. We cannot allow politicians and development interests to destroy the only tools we have for protecting the places that matter to us.

Our lawsuit regarding the General Plan's failure to adequately preserve our communities and the Mills act is the first of many such legal efforts in what likely will be a long and bitter battle to save the Mills Act and keep San Diego looking like someplace, not just any place. This filing was initiated with a $25,000 payment and will require substantial financial resources to see this battle to a successful conclusion.

We cannot do this alone, you can make a real difference with your donation to the SOHO Legal Defense Fund. You may donate easily on line or by sending a check to SOHO at 2476 San Diego Avenue, San Diego CA 92110.

It is important to make your feelings known directly to the mayor, write, email or call. Office of the Mayor, City Administration Building, 11th Floor, 202 C Street, San Diego CA 92101. (619) 236-6330 JerrySanders@sandiego.gov

SOHO's Recommendations

  1. SOHO could support moving up the application deadline from October 1 to an earlier date perhaps July 31, but not March 31.
  2. SOHO would support fair fee increases to recover staff time to administer the program.
  3. SOHO strongly supports inspections of Mills Act properties and we support annual inspections instead of every five years as suggested by the Mayor.
  4. SOHO would entertain contracting with the city to perform the inspections. Fees should represent actual costs.
  5. SOHO strongly supports tailored contracts for each property to insure the continued maintenance and preservation of the historic structure and to allow structures that are not already restored to be regulated and restored.
  6. We are adamantly opposed to the Mayor's suggested eligibility requirements, as they would exclude virtually all historic buildings from the program. Eligibility requirements could reasonably be changed to read that Mills Act contracts must further the goals of the General Plan.

We are adamantly opposed to any sort of cap, as this would reduce the current protections in place and leave many historic resources vulnerable to demolition that are not currently in danger.

Items #5 and #6 would require preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) with adequate mitigation to implement. Some of the other items would also have this requirement if not modified. To avoid a lengthy and expensive EIR process will require cooperation of all parties arriving at a sensible solution.

SOHO is challenging the legality of the Mayor's suggested changes if they are not modified, as currently proposed they violate State law.

SOHO strongly supports recommendation to increase the HRB staff to effectively handle the demands of the program and ensure protection of our historic resources.

2008 - Volume 39, Issue 1/2

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Lost San Diego


Strength in Numbers


Donations 2007-2008


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