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Sunroad's Timeline, Step By Step

It's a dispute over 20 feet and just how the Sunroad office tower grew to be so tall. And it's also a dispute involving lawsuits and countersuits that's landed San Diego's city attorney and the develo

Originally aired May 15, 2007. It's a dispute over 20 feet and just how the Sunroad office tower grew to be so tall. And it's also a dispute involving lawsuits and countersuits that's landed San Diego's city attorney and the developer in court. Amita Sharma has more.

The Federal Aviation Administration says this Sunroad building under construction is too tall and is a safety hazard. Sunroad refuses to lower the height. The controversy has spawned questions about how Sunroad got a building permit from the city and what the real plans are for the future of Montgomery Field.

A key part of the Sunroad story centers on Tom Story. He was once a top official in the city's planning department and later became Dick Murphy's chief of staff when he was mayor. Story was on the city's payroll until November 2005.

At around the same time, Sunroad Enterprises hired Story as vice president of development. And that's when City Attorney Mike Aguirre says Story ran afoul of the city's ethics law. That law bars city officials from lobbying their ex-employer for one year after they leave.

Aguirre : Within a year of leaving office, Mr. Story used his position as a former city employee to influence a decision that was being made by city officials in reference to the Century 12 property that we now know to be Sunroad.

But a San Diego judge says Aguirre has his own problems with the case. The judge has barred Aguirre from prosecuting the case because the city attorney has also filed a civil case against Sunroad over the height of its building. The judge says Aguirre has a conflict of interest.

Aguirre plans to appeal.

Aguirre says Story contacted city officials several times shortly after starting his job with Sunroad. Those contacts included talks about permit approvals and how to deal with the FAA on the Sunroad office tower and the developer's plan to construct a residential building. Story's attorney Patricia Naughton says his e-mails show he's innocent.

Naughton : There's nothing about pushing the project through. There's nothing about increasing the height of the building. There's absolutely nothing in there about undue influence or exerting influence on any city officials doing something they should not have done, absolutely nothing." There's absolutely nothing in the evidence the city attorney has pointed to that shows that Mr. Story used any kind of influence frankly to accomplish anything.

But Aguirre says e-mails also show that Story was in contact with the city about Sunroad's plans to build a residential building nearby in addition to their office tower. Those exchanges, say political watcher Carl Luna, pose a perception problem if not more on the city's dealings with Sunroad.

Luna : You have to ask yourself why would a large development corporation like Sunroad hire Tom Story, 20 years in city planning, former mayor's chief of staff, why would they hire him because of his expertise or his political connections and it has to be at least a little bit of both.

The storm swirling around Sunroad and Tom Story started here at Montgomery Field. City officials and pilots like Gerry Blank are mystified about why Sunroad executives would proceed with building an office tower they knew was violated FAA height limits even before constructions began.

Blank : The paper trail is unmistakable. In April of 2006, when they told the FAA they wanted to build to build to 180 feet, the FAA said no that will be a hazard. In June of 2006, they said we'll keep it lower at a 160 feet which does not violate the critical airspace and then behind the FAA's back, Sunroad went ahead and built to the higher level, that's the epitome of corporate arrogance.

But Sunroad Steven Strauss vehemently denies that the developer is being arrogant or even defiant.

Strauss : Sunroad asked the city before it started construction if there any building height limitations here, they were told no.

In fact, Strauss says Sunroad has received multiple permits to construct the building to its current full height of 180 feet. And that's where the second question arises. Why did the city give Sunroad a permit to construct a building that was too tall. Political watcher Carl Luna.

Luna : It would be like me deciding I want to put up downtown a 40-50 story building in the flight path of Lindberg Field. The FAA doesn't control the land but the city should figure out there's an airport there, you've got to watch the size of that building.

But Aguirre says the onus is on Sunroad, not the city.

Aguirre : That's like saying if the city gave someone permission to open a restaurant, it would allow them to serve liquor. There are two different licensing requirements and they did not comply with the FAA requirement.

Aguirre has sued to force Sunroad to lower the height of the building. Sunroad has countersued.

Luna : At this point, somebody is going to be out a whole lot of money. It could be that if Mike Aguirre fights off the Sunroad lawsuits arguing the original permits were granted illegally, that here was collusion or corruption involved, the Sunroad developer is going to lose a lot of money. They'll probably go bankrupt. Otherwise they're going to sue the city and try to get all the costs out of the city which could include demoing the building and starting from scratch.

And that's what apparently has city officials worried.

There's a stop work order in place on the building's two top floors until the FAA and Sunroad resolve their dispute. Though the developer got permission to roof the building to shield it from the rain, Sunroad is apparently flouting the order by also putting in walls on those floors. Councilwoman Donna Frye believes the move is deliberate.

Frye : They are continuing work. And it is not acceptable. It's very clear to me that their objective is to complete the building before this can go to court.

Frye has asked Mayor Jerry Sanders to enforce the stop work order. His spokesman Fred Sainz says it's being enforced. He describes what Sunroad is doing now as “weatherization.”

Sainz : Should the city limit that work and then lose in the court of law, the city could potentially be liable for a tidy sum of money for the amount of time that has elapsed and the losses to the company.

That attitude has left some people perplexed and suspicious. They believe the city's stance may be part of a larger and surreptitious plan for Montgomery Field.

Frye : If you build all around it to where it becomes not as a desirable airport where there are hazards to air navigation, where there are impediments to safe operations or expansion of the airport, then eventually you can sort of preclude it from being used as an airport.

At 547 acres, this piece of real estate is one of the last open spaces left in San Diego County and as such is very desirable.

Frye : There are many people who want that land, many, many people that at a moment's notice would covet the land. There's a great deal of money to be made if you have city-owned land which we do for Montgomery Field and someone can say golly look at all this vacant potential, this land has the potential to become a city of villages or whatever.

Frye says for years, the chamber of commerce and developers like Sol Price have eyed Montgomery Field as a site for hotels, offices and homes. Former City Manager Jack McGrory now works for developer Sol Price. He denies being interested in the property for anything other than affordable housing.

McGrory : We are not interested in Montgomery Field.

But Frye says her constituents want to keep the airport here. Businesses have located to Kearny Mesa so they could use the airport. Police and firefighters also use it during emergencies. And the land surrounding the airport is environmentally sensitive. It has about 50 vernal pools.

Frye : I always try to explain to people …land use requires a balance. It requires some industrial. It requires some open space. It requires some areas that have the housing. You don't sacrifice one type of land use and let another type of land use just completely overtake it.

Sainz : There is no plan to get rid of this airport, no plan to do anything other than what it is.

Even so, political watcher Luna says no one should be faulted about second guessing the future of Montgomery Field.

Luna : That being said, when the players involved such as Sunroad, Tom Story, city planners have acted in such a convoluted manner to accomplish what they're doing, they open themselves up to any kind of speculation that people want to bring forward, they've lost all credibility.

For now, the FAA has issued a warning to pilots to steer clear of the flight pattern of the Sunroad building.