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Barrio Logan Referendum Kicks Off

Above: San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer supports the referendum of the Barrio Logan community plan, Oct. 3, 2013.

Huge steel ships lined the horizon as a group of about 20 shipyard workers held signs reading “protect our jobs.” Maritime industry gathered workers on the waterfront as they kicked off their campaign to overturn the Barrio Logan community plan.

Aired 10/4/13 on KPBS News.

The referendum to bring the Barrio Logan community plan to a city-wide vote has begun, at the same time as mayoral candidates and City Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez say they will continue to search for compromise.

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The much fought over plan has been painstakingly negotiated over the past five years with long meetings and stakeholder groups. But the low-income, largely Latino neighborhood of Barrio Logan has been waiting for a community plan update for 30 years. According to local activists, lack of zoning regulations during that time allowed businesses to crop up next to homes and schools. They said many of those businesses polluted the air, resulting in disproportionately high asthma and cancer rates for residents.

When the city council approved the first reading of the plan by a 5-to-4 vote, many in the community saw it as a win for neighborhoods. The plan hasn’t been approved officially yet — it needs one more reading at city council — yet already it is facing a referendum and strong opposition from maritime industry.

Maritime leaders repeated their claims that the plan would mark a death knell for the shipbuilding industry in San Diego. The sticking point is just a few square blocks — a buffer zone — that separates the docks from the residential neighborhood. Under the plan, new businesses that serve the shipbuilding industry would have to get a conditional-use permit, or CUP, in order to set up shop. Industry advocates said this process would be both costly and time-consuming, ultimately creating a moratorium on growth — they claim businesses would be forced to relocate to other areas, raising costs and ultimately drying up Navy contracts, costing San Diego good working-class jobs.

To get a referendum on the ballot, the maritime industry must gather 50,000 signatures in the next 30 days. The Thursday press conference featured not just the backdrop of ships and workers, but a giant novelty petition page, which both workers and leaders signed symbolically in black Sharpie.

While maritime leaders doubled down on paying for a costly campaign to overturn the plan, City Councilman and mayoral candidate Kevin Faulconer said he still felt there was some hope to avoid a citywide vote.

Faulconer said he opposes the plan that passed city council, agreeing with the maritime industry’s claims that it threatens 46,000 jobs on the working waterfront.

“I believe most San Diegans agree our city cannot afford to lose these jobs,” he said.

But Faulconer also said he was still trying to craft a compromise with the council and the community, hoping the issue could be resolved internally. Failing that, he said the referendum is the best option.

“This effort will allow San Diegans to have the final say at the ballot box,” he said.

Shipyard workers sign a oversize petition calling for a referendum of the Barrio Logan community plan, Oct. 3, 2013.

But fellow City Councilman David Alvarez said the entire city shouldn’t necessarily decide what’s best for a neighborhood. Alvarez represents Barrio Logan and has worked to create a compromise he said protects residents and jobs. Alvarez, who is also running for mayor, said he is concerned a well-financed special interest like the maritime industry is using their power to overturn any policy they don’t like.

“To have one group of individuals say, 'we’ve got enough money to fight this, and we will fight it unless you do it our way,' is really alarming,” he said.

Alvarez said at a time San Diego is gearing up revamp community plans across the city, it sends a message that business interests, not neighborhood voices, will have the final say.

Alvarez said the referendum threatens to swallow community voices and concerns about the health and welfare of Barrio Logan residents. He said in crafting what was already a compromise plan he tried to address the maritime industries worries at every turn. When industry raised concerns the plan allowed for residential growth in the buffer zone, he changed the zoning.

But that wasn’t enough, Alvarez said, noting that as soon as he addressed that concern, industry brought up a new one, the conditional use permits. He said the maritime industry “kept changing the goalposts, which made it difficult to craft a plan” on which everyone could agree.

Both sides are adamant that they have already compromised enough. The community activists say all they want is oversight of businesses that are built in close proximity to homes and schools. They say the permitting process is just regulation to make sure that businesses that serve the shipbuilding industry cannot store toxic chemicals or create hazardous conditions in the space bordering a thriving neighborhood.

In the past, metal plating businesses released carcinogens into the air while trucks idled at all hours adding to noise pollution. Community activists say all they are looking for is a guarantee that won’t happen again. That is why, they said, they want growth in the buffer zone regulated.

Matt Carr is the president of Cal Marine Cleaning, a business that supplies shipyards. He said the permitting process will cripple his ability to grow. If he wants to expand his small business more than 20 percent in the two blocks closest to the shipyards, he would need a permit he called “virtually impossible to obtain.” He added that the final approval for those permits will come from city council.

“The same government body that adopted this dangerous plan,” he said.

Councilman David Alvarez called that argument specious, saying just because the council wants to establish oversight, doesn’t mean they will turn down every proposed business expansion.

“We believe that the industry is important, what we don’t want is an over-saturation of polluters, we want to make sure that it is balanced,” he said.

In the end, the controversy comes down to how to permit the growth of new business in the buffer zone.

Alvarez agreed with fellow City Councilman Faulconer on one thing: there might still be room for compromise. He said there needs to be some regulation of what gets built in the buffer zone so that what happened in Barrio Logan in the past won’t happen again.

"That’s why we want to have ultimate oversight," Alvarez said.

But Alvarez said he could be willing to address concerns the council is too political a body to regulate the industry.

"If we could find a way we could streamline and we wouldn’t have to go to council, but we could still achieve those goals, I think that would be OK as well,” he said.

Both Faulconer and Alvarez said they will be working — and working together — to try and resolve the problem without a referendum.

Meanwhile the maritime industry will be out gathering signatures, as a neighborhood battle over just a few blocks moves outside the community to the entire city.

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