Too Many Mansions

Burt Boyer fears big places next to little cottages

Development of Halifax. Bulldozers are grading land into terraces on which will sit 25 new homes.
  • Development of Halifax. Bulldozers are grading land into terraces on which will sit 25 new homes.
  • Image by Joe Klein

Bart Boyer: "I don't want Allied Gardens to get into the situation that North Park got into."

Bart Boyer: "I don't want Allied Gardens to get into the situation that North Park got into."

— Bart Boyer says he was always aware that the vacant acreage behind his Allied Gardens house of 21 years was going to be developed someday. But when you find out how much effort, time, and money he has put into fighting against two proposals to develop the 13 acres of hillside along Halifax Street, you wonder if he ever truly prepared himself for the eventuality. A binder of research he's prepared on the matter is 150 pages long, and that's only highlights of all the paperwork and material he's gathered.

Old landfill material has been hauled away from the work site and dumped on a sunken field at nearby Lewis Middle School.

Old landfill material has been hauled away from the work site and dumped on a sunken field at nearby Lewis Middle School.

"When [my wife] Joanie and I moved into this house and joined the neighborhood way back in 1980," the retired engineer recalls, "there was an active permit for a 42-unit condominium complex to be built there. That was grossly oversized. It violated the law for density. That was more dense even than a trailer park that's close by here. So, when that came up for renewal, Joanie and I and some of the other neighbors wrote letters and pointed out to the city that the plan was badly flawed. The city went ahead and failed to renew that permit. Ostensibly, they said it was because of traffic. But I think they didn't want to acknowledge that they had made a bad mistake. I don't care why. I'm just glad it was never built."

Boyer's 1400-square-foot house sits on 50th Street, immediately to the east and uphill from the proposed development, where bulldozers are currently grading the land into terraces on which will sit 25 new homes. The neighborhood lies a few blocks to the north of Zion Avenue, near the Allied Gardens recreation center. It's a tract of small homes along narrow, tree-lined streets. The houses are mostly single-story except for the occasional dwelling with an added-on second story. Most of the yards are well kept, if not expensively landscaped. And the cars parked in driveways indicate a mix of middle-class and working-class residents. Houses here usually sell between $250,000 and $280,000. "One around the corner went for over 300," Boyer says, "but it was a big place. In this neighborhood, about 7 percent of the homes are what I would call big homes, 1800 to 1900 square feet. Like this one next door, it's around 1900."

Houses that size in Bart Boyer's neighborhood had substantial add-ons to the original house built in the '50s. "The place across the street is an original," Boyer explains. "Eight hundred and fifty square feet. This one is original, except for that family room out there. With the family room, it's 1400 square feet."

The size of the homes being built in the Halifax Estates development -- "From 2000 to a little under 2400 square feet," says head contractor Wes Shippy -- is one of Boyer's concerns about the project. He objects to what he calls the "mansionization" of his neighborhood. "I don't want Allied Gardens to get into the situation that North Park got into, where you've got big places next door to little cottages." And Boyer points to a section of the San Diego municipal code that seems designed to prevent mansionization. The section deals with "Floor Area Ratio," which is defined as the "Gross Floor Area" of a building divided by "the total area of the lot or premises." "So," Boyer explains, "if you have a 2000-square-foot home sitting on an 8000-foot lot, then you would have a floor-area ratio of .25."

The subsection states that the ratio for any development should not vary more than 50 percent from the ratio of the existing area. "This neighborhood," Boyer explains, "has a floor-area ratio of .19. If you look at the plans for the project and take all the residential lots and compare them to all the houses, you get a .38 floor-area ratio." That's a 100 percent variance from the existing neighborhood average. But in addition to numbers and formulas, the municipal code also spells out the spirit of the law. Boyer reads from a photocopied page, "The overriding objective is that the project average of bulk, mass, and scale be consistent with the neighborhood."

One need only drive around Boyer's small-scale, almost cottagey neighborhood to realize that it would be impossible for one 2400-square-foot home to be "consistent with the neighborhood," let alone 25 of them. Boyer shakes his head. "They got a project through that violates the municipal code."

The Halifax Estates developer, the Pacific Group, didn't return a call for comment on the issue. Wes Shippy, the general contractor, did. Asked whether the project met the municipal code's floor-area ratio requirement, he declines to go into specifics. "We're building a project that was approved," he says. "It went through the city processes, and we've fulfilled our obligations to date. As far as it being overbuilt for the neighborhood, that's really our problem if the pricing that we want can't be supported. If it can and we can sell those houses, then it really just helps out the value for the neighbors' properties when they decide to sell. We're only improving the community."

When told that the city code seems to insist that you build something consistent with the neighborhood, he responds, "And we've gone through that process for ten years."

Another of Boyer's concerns about the project is old landfill material that has been hauled away from the work site and dumped on a sunken field at nearby Lewis Middle School. "When they were building all the homes in this area of Allied Gardens, there was a lot of construction debris. And they would get it with a front loader, put it in a dump truck, haul it over, and dump it in this canyon where they are grading now. When they got done, they went ahead and capped it with dirt and it sat there for 50 years."

Boyer contends that construction materials of the era were filled with asbestos, and therefore the dirt is contaminated. City officials don't dispute Boyer's claim that the site was a former landfill, but they're not buying into the asbestos scare. "When the grading started at the site," says city planner Tom Murphy, "there were some concerns about toxic material that had been dropped in the canyon over the years, that, with the grading, it would be stirred up. But the [soils test] information I've received has been that it was not a problem. There was careful monitoring on site."

Boyer responds that the testing was done by a subcontractor paid by the developer. "So it was kind of a fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation."

When the city council approved the plan for Halifax Estates in 1993, the approval came with 55 conditions. Boyer has studied all of them and feels he has found discrepancies between them and the plans for the project. Condition 43, dealing with driveways, states, "There shall be a 20-foot minimum distance between the garages and the back of the [sidewalk] to assure a clear walkway while vehicles are parked in front of the garage." Boyer points to one of the project plans spread out on his dining room table. "See this driveway here. It's supposed to be 20 feet... it's 19...another 19...another 19."

The plans he's looking at are dated 1999. Recently, he's has been down to the city development building on First Avenue, downtown, to see the most recent plans filed by the developer. "The driveways are even shorter... 14, 15 feet," Boyer says.

Condition 41 of the approved residential development proposal stipulates that the streets inside the development must be lined with sidewalks. "The new plans," Boyer says, "only have sidewalks on one side of the street."

In a June meeting with his city councilman, Jim Madaffer, Boyer asked whether the 55 development conditions were suggestions or legally binding mandates. In September, he received his answer in the form of a letter from City Attorney Casey Gwinn, stating that "Unless clearly stated to the contrary, the terms and conditions of a permit are requirements."

Though he hasn't looked at the latest plans yet, Tom Murphy says they will be reviewed with all 55 conditions in mind. "I'm always very careful with these things," Murphy says, adding with a chuckle. "But I told Mr. Boyer today when I gave him the plans, 'You can start checking them now. If you find anything, let me know.' It is a little bit unusual, frankly, for the public to get involved in the plan-checking project. But it seems like every year for 35 years, the neighbors are getting more and more sophisticated and more and more determined. That's fine. That's the process. That's the law."

Murphy adds, "And, of course, Mr. Boyer is aware that if he starts questioning these things early enough that it's going to, perhaps, heighten our awareness. I've been in the business 35 years. I'm not sure I need my awareness heightened."

Wes Shippy says of Boyer, "That gentleman has done nothing but harass us at every opportunity. As a result of his claims, we've spent thousands and thousands of dollars to be on the cautious side of safety for the community, and we have yet to come up with anything to be of concern."

The Pacific Group, in June, had its lawyer fire off a letter to Boyer threatening to sue Boyer. The letter, signed by Laura W. Packer of O'Connor, Packer, & Dunivan, said, "Your repeated efforts to harass Pacific Group employees and subcontractors solely to delay the project must cease immediately. Likewise your efforts to further involve governmental agencies without any good faith belief that the work is not being performed in accordance with the approved plans must cease immediately."

Boyer insists he is not raising obstructions for obstruction's sake and further insists that this is not a "Not in my back yard!" issue. "I've always known that the land was slated for development," he says. "And if they had gone ahead and just been straight with us right from the beginning, if they were going to build homes just like in our neighborhood around here, I would have said, 'Joanie, it's their property and they have a right to build on it,' and we would have sat back and they never would have heard a word out of us."

Tapping the lawsuit threat letter, he adds, "But when they sent this, they really made a mistake."

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