Under California law, all municipalities are required to complete General Plans that provide a blueprint for a long-range vision for cities. We find these documents useful when they provide clear objectives and a strong implementation plan, or challenging when they have lofty but vague goals. State law does not require the completion of community, area and specific plans, but when executed they apply General Plan standards to a specific geographic area to enable communities to determine the density, building height, zoning and amenities for their neighborhoods.
EHC’s community-driven planning efforts have focused on these plans because they offer the opportunity for self-determination for residents and enable residents to be proactive rather than reactive to inappropriate development proposals. The process also represents a holistic strategy for a community to engage in planning. It may allow residents, perhaps for the first time, to envision their community using their values and aspirations, not the developer’s or the city councilmember’s.
In each community, the underlying process is the same.
Building Community Power
Authentic community involvement in every aspect of community planning and visioning leads to better outcomes that respect neighborhoods and their residents. EHC’s core strategies for all our efforts include community organizing and policy advocacy, which we combine with grassroots leadership development, research and communications to implement each strategic plan. To ensure that the community’s voice is heard, EHC employs the following tactics:
Community Action Teams In each community, EHC establishes a Community Action Team comprising residents trained as EHC leaders. These leaders develop the community vision and priorities that direct our efforts. They serve as spokespersons for the campaign at meetings with elected officials and government agency representatives and on various planning committees established to oversee plan development.
José Medina, National City resident since 1969 and EHC leader, expressed his hopes for the Old Town National City Specific Plan when he said: “The plan will allow me to see the neighborhood change into something I remember when I was a boy, when a lot of residents were connecting with each other. In the mid-80s it changed for the worse – I saw houses flattened and autobody shops moved in.”
Leadership Training— SALTA (Salud Ambiental Líderes Tomando Acción -- Environmental Health, Leaders Taking Action) All EHC leaders complete an eight-session Core SALTA training program providing them with skills and knowledge to become effective advocates and community organizers. A five-session mini-SALTA focusing on land use also provides training on redevelopment, zoning, and affordable housing, plus air quality, contaminated site cleanup, reducing industrial pollution, and sustainable building, including green building materials and renewable energy options.
Conducting Community Surveys EHC Leaders commit to understanding the priorities of their neighbors and representing those needs when developing EHC platforms and positions. They utilize community surveying as a method for collecting and documenting these needs. In National City, for example, leaders surveyed residents and found that the highest priorities included development of affordable housing, relocation of auto body shops and changing zoning to prohibit incompatible mixed-use. These community priorities were incorporated into the community plan.
Community Visioning Once aware of the impact and importance of community planning EHC leaders in both Barrio Logan and Old Town National City elected to develop their own neighborhood vision. EHC raised funds to employ a land-use planning firm to work with residents to develop detailed plans with zoning changes, volume and affordability levels of new housing units, identification of industries for relocation, park acreage, school requirements and more. Barrio Logan’s community plan—one of the City of San Diego’s oldest—had not been updated since 1978. After years of promises and delays, residents took planning into their own hands. This resulted in the Barrio Logan Vision, now endorsed by over 1,000 area residents, community organizations and local businesses. EHC then secured $1.5 million from a neighboring downtown development agency for the City to update and revise the official Barrio Logan Community Plan, a process starting in early 2008. EHC pushes for the community plan update to be consistent with the Barrio Logan Vision.
Hilda Valenzuela, EHC leader and Barrio Logan resident, expressed her excitement about the start of the planning process: “I hope with the Community Plan Update process we can resolve the problems sooner – improve affordable housing, have a healthier environment for children and a better place to live.”
Ensure Healthy Neighborhoods
For many years, EHC has promoted pollution prevention and the precautionary principle as the best way to prevent toxic exposure for community residents and workers. Communities subjected to toxic exposure due to discriminatory zoning need to take action to protect themselves and create separation between residential and industrial land uses. They must also ensure that industrial businesses adopt and implement the most up-to-date technology.
Buffer Zones EHC proposed the Toxic-Free Neighborhoods Ordinance in the City of San Diego in 1990, which would have required a buffer between industries using or emitting hazardous materials and residences, schools, and day care centers. Local polluters spent thousands of dollars lobbying against the ordinance and ultimately defeated it. Without an ordinance, EHC targeted polluters that chronically violated the law. Master Plating fit the bill with over 150 violations on the books. Community organizing efforts compelled the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and local government to take action resulting in Master Plating’s shutdown in 2002. CARB’s monitoring revealed a cancer risk four times higher than a "typical urban area" due to hexavalent chromium emissions. As a result of this local action, CARB developed the Air Quality and Land Use Handbook in 2005 that recommended buffers for many polluters for the first time in state or local regulatory history. The recommended buffer for chrome platers is 1,000 feet. The distance between Master Plating and the house next door was 4 feet. The guidance document also recommends separation of housing and major roadways, which presents difficulties with "transit-oriented development" that may encourage development very near freeways.
Elvia Martinez, Master Plating’s next door neighbor and EHC leader, said: “This is the way it’s supposed to work…when a community works together to make its neighborhood a better place to live.”
Zoning Community plans can include zoning ordinances that determine where industrial, commercial and residential areas can be located. "Mixed-use" zoning that allows free uses in the same area plagues Barrio Logan and National City. EHC seeks specific zoning designations in the new community plans that separate industrial areas from residential areas and remove incompatible mixed-use zoning.
Polluter Relocation and Removal Rules that prohibit new sensitive uses near pollution sources help, but to restore residential neighborhoods and make them healthy places to live, polluters adjacent to homes and schools must be relocated. EHC has pursued several tactics to accomplish this. In National City, the City Council adopted an amortization ordinance that will phase out industries currently allowed to operate near sensitive uses such as schools. The ordinance sets up a process for relocation of prioritized industries when the amortization period is triggered.