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The Riehl World: Find the Hidden Mega Mall

Coastal Commission Halts Carlsbad Mayor’s Land Use Shell Game

By Richard Riehl

Thanks to the vigilance of California Coastal Commissioner Olga Diaz and the leadership of Carlsbad City Council candidate Cori Schumacher, regional shopping centers and mixed use residential developments were not allowed to sneak past the California Coastal Commission at its May 11 meeting to approve a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) Amendment to the city’s General Plan Update.

In a shell game disguised as “consolidating land use designations,” Mayor Matt Hall told commissioners there were no substantive changes to the city’s land use plan for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Public Use Corridor in combining “Travel/Recreation Commercial,” “Travel Services” and “Recreation commercial” into the single title, “Visitor Commercial.”

As Carlsbad voters will recall, an L.A. developer named Rick Caruso tried to bypass voters and state environmental impact reviews last year with a bogusly named “citizen-led” initiative, the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Specific Plan, which would have changed the land use of 27 acres near the lagoon from Travel Services (TS) to Visitor Serving Commercial (VSC), allowing a regional shopping mall to be built there. Carlsbad volunteer activists launched a successful referendum to force a vote on the project that led to the landslide defeat of the developer’s Measure A at the polls. Surely, that would send Caruso packing.

But there was a reason for the billionaire developer to stick around town.

After Measure A failed, the land use designation for 48 acres adjacent to the lagoon returned to Travel Services (TS). But, hell bent on continuing to make the lagoon-side property attractive to developers, the city asked that it be changed to VC (Visitor Commercial) when it submitted its LCP Amendment to the Coastal Commission in April.

While Mayor Matt Hall described the change as simply semantic, consolidating previous land use designations in the city’s General Plan, Cori Schumacher took a closer look. She discovered the VC designation would have permitted mixed use residential/commercial development on the 48-acre site. Thanks to her discovery, 140 Carlsbadians wrote to the Coastal Commission to object to the inclusion of mixed use residential development for that property, as well as the site of the soon to be shut down Encina Power Plant, part of which the city wants to be changed from Public Utility to VC.

The day before the Coastal Commission’s May meeting Carlsbad resident Amanda Mascia discovered the city’s VC designation would allow shopping centers on both the 48 acre lagoon-side site and the power plant property, despite the will of the people in defeating Measure A.

At the commission’s May 11 meeting Mascia produced a copy of an April 6, 2016 memo from Jennifer Jesser, Senior City Planner, to City Manager Kevin Crawford. Jesser advised Crawford the change from TS (also referred to as “TR” by the commission) to VC is appropriate because, Commercial development in Carlsbad since 1994 has shown that visitors are also served (and drawn to the city) by specialty, visitor-serving and attracting retail developments, such as the Carlsbad Premium Outlets and The Forum Carlsbad.”

Mascia’s testimony spurred Commissioner Diaz to ask commission staff what changes would be allowed in changing TR to VC. She referred to the staff report submitted with the meeting’s agenda that called on the city to “initiate a comprehensive assessment of the city’s current stock of visitor serving uses before an implementation plan and zoning for the VC land use designation could be approved.”

Diaz pinned down staffer Toni Ross, Coastal Program Analyst, with the question, “Would changing from TR to VC allow shopping centers?” Despite the city planner’s April 6 memo, Ross claimed VC wouldn’t add anything more to what is already allowed for TR because the TR allows for retail shopping. He declined to answer whether the changed designation would allow regional shopping centers to be built there. Without explaining how, Ross echoed Mayor Hall’s claim that the change would be an improvement simply by “consolidating land use” designations.

For their part, the mayor and assistant city manager chose not to respond at all to Diaz’s request for clarification. Their silence spoke louder than words. Let them guess what we’ve hidden under Visitor Commercial after we’ve shuffled the shells of TS, TR and RC.

Seeking closure, Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb explained, “Today’s decision is on land use only, not zoning, which would have to be addressed later, after comprehensive review of visitor serving uses in the city.” She recommended the exclusion of the land use change for the two properties in question if the commission believes the VC designation “is not consistent with the City’s General Plan.”

Four votes were taken. The first was to reject the original proposal submitted by the city. The other three involved excluding the two properties in question from land use changes and approving the city’s LCP Amendment with mapping modifications recommended by staff and previously agreed to by the city.

The Coastal Commission’s approval of the city’s LCP with modifications was celebrated as a victory by the citizen activists attending the meeting. Without excluding the two properties, the VC land use designation would have allowed shopping malls, as well as mixed use residential/commercial development if supporting implementation and zoning plans were later approved by the Coastal Commission.

The city’s website, reporting the vote of the commission, titled, “Coastal Commission Approves Land Use Updates” is more of a face-saving gesture by elected officials than helpful information for their constituents. There’s no explanation of why the commission deferred approval of the VC land use changes, no mention of the commission meeting’s debate over whether shopping centers and homes could be built on those two properties, only a vague reference to needing “more time to consider clarifications.” No mention was made of the commission’s call for a “comprehensive analysis and inventory of current visitor serving uses.”

At the City Council’s May 17 meeting Mayor Hall told Christine Wright and Vickey Syage, public speakers who criticized the city’s presentation to the Coastal Commission, that he and staff would be happy to meet with anyone who would like to hear about the decision, and that understanding the commission’s ruling was a “matter of semantics, and it’s important for everyone to be on the same page.”

For starters he could explain why he resorted to a shell game with the California Coastal Commission to hide incentives for greedy developers.


Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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