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Social Distancing Disrupts Routines For Neighborhood Planning Groups

A computer screen shows the attendees of a Zoom meeting of Uptown Planners, A...

Credit: Uptown Planners

Above: A computer screen shows the attendees of a Zoom meeting of Uptown Planners, April 7, 2020.

San Diego's volunteer community planning groups are struggling to hold meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, a reality that some fear could disrupt the city's home building plans.

Several planning groups have canceled their meetings in March and April rather than try to hold them remotely. Others have tried to hold meetings virtually, with varying degrees of success.

Nicholas Reed, vice chair of the Clairemont Planning Group, said many of his neighbors are older and averse to virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom.

"They would rather meet face to face and have dialogue with city staff or even planning group members," he said. "They want their voice to be heard, but I don't think they want to have it heard in a virtual way."

During their meeting Tuesday, members of the San Diego City Council passed a resolution that makes allowances for the planning groups amid the pandemic.

The council policy that governs planning groups requires them to hold elections in March — but only about half managed to do so before state and local public health orders banned all public gatherings. The resolution passed Tuesday allows elections to be postponed until after those orders have been lifted.

RELATED: Property In San Diego’s Clairemont Neighborhood Cleared For Affordable Housing

Reported by Andrew Bowen , Video by Andi Dukleth

The stakes are higher in Clairemont, where planning group members are currently awaiting the environmental impact report for the city's proposed update to its community plan. City planners are tasked with rezoning parts of the mostly low-density neighborhood to allow for thousands of new apartment and condominium buildings — proposals that have sparked controversy among some residents opposed to new development.

The plan update's draft environmental document is scheduled to be released in June, and Reed said city staffers have not indicated it would be delayed because of the coronavirus. He added group members were trying to plan for in-person meetings that allowed for social distancing, should restrictions on public gatherings be relaxed.

Other planning groups have opted to hold virtual meetings — though not always without mishaps. The Ocean Beach Planning Group tried to hold a meeting via Zoom on April 1, but it was overtaken by Internet trolls who harassed attendees by name, posted swastikas and screen shared a porn website. The so-called "Zoom bombing" has become a nationwide phenomenon.

RELATED: San Diego Launches ‘Sim City’ Planning Tool For Clairemont

Uptown Planners, which covers Hillcrest, Bankers Hill and Mission Hills, managed to hold its April 7 meeting via Zoom without any disruption. During the meeting, planning group members voted to recommend approval of a 20-story condominium tower in Bankers Hill.

"I wanted to make sure people that have projects aren't being held up and delayed," Soheil Nakhshab, chair of Uptown Planners, said of his decision to meet virtually. "We had 40 or 50 people (join the meeting), so it was actually more than we would normally have."

The threat of canceled planning group meetings delaying development projects was also a concern for Councilman Scott Sherman. City planners assured Sherman during Tuesday's council meeting that projects would continue to move through the approval process even if planning groups failed to offer a recommendation.

"I just want to make sure that no more costs are being incurred," Sherman said.

Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

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Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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