“At Camp Run-A-Mutt Sorrento Valley, it’s all about the dogs.” At least that’s what it says on the kennel’s website. But according to Karen Posner and her cousin Alisha, owners of a San Diego Camp-Run-A-Mutt franchise in Sorrento Valley, it’s all about red tape.
In April, after months of attempting to placate the city, Karen Posner lamented, “It’s been an absolute nightmare. We haven’t been able to officially open due to the bureaucracy that the city has created for us.”
Locked in a prolix regulatory struggle with the city, the Posners say they’ve been bollixed by a bevy of shifting and onerous requirements, which they claim provide an incentive to beg forgiveness rather than ask for permission. And it’s permission, obtained only by navigating the city’s torturous permit process, that the nascent canine nannies have sought — to no avail.
“If we were doing this illegally by just opening without the permits, I believe we’d be in a better place than we are doing it the correct way. If we opened and someone complained, the city might send a code enforcement officer who’d say, ‘You need a permit,’ and we’d tell him we have one on file. The city would say, ‘We won’t shut you down; we’ll just give you time to get the permit…’.”
Karen says she’s dumped her life savings into the franchise. “We had a dream of starting a dog daycare for many years. We like the cage-free concept of the franchise and thought it would do well in San Diego. Think of daycare for dogs in the same way you’d think of it for kids; people will drop them off in the morning and pick them up after work. It’s a place to socialize and learn; the dogs aren’t home alone, and they’re cage-free, so they can run around with other dogs in a supervised manner.”
11468 Sorrento Valley Road, Suite B, Sorrento Valley
But zoning strictures come into play. “We’d been looking [for] three or four years for a commercial location in North County, but there weren’t any suitable sites. With a kennel, you’ve got to have space; we wanted at least 7000 square feet. And of course, it can’t be near a residential area.” Last fall, the Posners found a location, an industrial park tucked away on Sorrento Valley Road just west of the 5.
Fast-forward to May 2015, and the cheery website proclaims, “Now Open!” It portrays a variety of well-behaved canines romping (under the tutelage of kind keepers, natch) amid perfect artificial turf and faux boulders. In another photograph, on the front of the facility is written “daycare*boarding*grooming*obedience.”
Obedience? Karen and Alisha say that they’re trying to behave, but the city keeps changing the rules.
According to Karen, the trouble began in November 2014. “We went to the City of San Diego Building Services Department to see what kind of permits were required. They told us that all we needed was a Change of Use Permit. They also said that there was a fee for submitting the application, but the cost would be pretty insignificant — $2000. This was for creating plans and getting over-the-counter signoffs from different city departments. We hired an architect and a city ‘expediter’ to help us with that. It took us about four months to get that done, but when we went to submit everything in March, the city told us, ‘Now you need a neighborhood-use permit.’”
The neighborhood-use permit is the big dog in San Diego’s regulatory pound, and in the case of Camp Run-A-Mutt Sorrento Valley, it weighs in at well over $100,000.
The bulk of the newly disclosed expense, $93,340, turns out to be a mysterious levy that goes by the moniker, “Development Impact Fee.” Based on “average trip durations,” it’s intended, claims the city, to reflect costs surmised to be generated by increased traffic stemming from a new type of business. As Karen relates, “Several different departments have to sign off before you can get the [neighborhood-use permit], and one of the departments is Transportation, which looks at the traffic patterns and flows your business will create.”
The Posners contend that the city’s timing couldn’t have been worse. “After we were already paying rent waiting to open, they told us, ‘You’re changing the use from a warehouse to a kennel where people will be dropping off and picking up their dogs on a regular basis. We don’t have a category for kennel traffic patterns, so we’re going to put you in some random category called ‘commercial retail.’ The city says that the average trips expected in the commercial retail category is 40 per 1000 square feet, versus 15 per 1000 square feet in the industrial park category; this comes out to 416 per day for us.”
To make matters worse, says Karen, “Apparently, Sorrento Valley has a very small sector the city calls ‘Torrey Pines’ that we could not have known about; even the architect and city expediter we hired missed it.” In Torrey Pines, they charge [$359] per ‘extra trip.’ They chose the most expensive category.”
The city, however, implies that the $93,340 development impact fee is actually a discount of sorts. Lynda Pfeifer, supervising public information officer for the development department, runs the numbers for me. Camp Run-A-Mutt’s development impact fee, she notes, incorporates a $56,004 credit which reflects the 15 average trip durations per 1000 square feet attributable to the pre-existing industrial park usage. Without the credit, Pfeifer states, the total fee would be $149,344.
Credits and calculations aside, the doggy daycare doyennes aren’t buying it. “When we first contacted the city in November 2014, we wanted to know what we were getting into, but the city gave us incorrect information, didn’t allow us to make an informed decision. The city needs to give businesses the info up front, be clear about the costs and timeline associated with a particular location and say, ‘These are the permits you’ll need, this is what you can expect to spend.’ With just the change-of-use permit, total fees would’ve been only $8000 to $10,000. Had they told us at the beginning, we could have made the decision to either secure more funding to last through the delay…or just walk away and find another location, but they surprised us.”
The city contends that if the Posners didn’t get the right answers, it’s because they didn’t ask the right questions. Firouzeh Tirandazi, project manager in the Development Department (who has coordinated the various departments’ reviews of the kennel’s permit process), states, “I’m not sure what they asked the desk person when they first contacted the city, but maybe they didn’t ask specific enough questions about the process.”
For her part, Lynda Pfeifer says that although the city acknowledges that Karen Posner was a ‘walk-in’ on November 21, 2014, there is “no record of information asked for or provided.” Pfeifer adds, “The city encourages applicants to do thorough research prior to entering into leases, but we understand that sometimes small-business owners don’t realize what questions they might need to ask. It is difficult for zoning staff to fully anticipate the depth of need associated with a general inquiry.”
Eventually, the Posners’ resolve to play by the city’s rules eroded; saddled with $11,000-a-month rent on top of sunk costs to refurbish a space from warehouse to kennel, they realized that by the time their kennel might be granted the city’s imprimatur — Camp Run-A-Mutt would have run aground. So they’re open.
“But they shouldn’t be open,” fumes Tirandazi, “because they haven’t complied with the discretionary requirements to do so.”
The City of San Diego has given the Posners an option of sorts; they can “appeal” the $93,340 fee by spending perhaps $50,000 for their own traffic study to be conducted by a firm recommended by...the city. But, as Karen notes, “After all that, the city could still reject the results of our private study.”