Under California law, all municipalities are required to complete General Plans that provide a blueprint for a long-range vision for cities. EHC successfully advocated for an Environmental Health and Justice element in the National City General Plan and a buffer zone between polluters and homes/schools in the Chula Vista General Plan – both firsts in the state. 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.

EHC currently works on community-driven land-use planning in Barrio Logan, City Heights and Sherman/Logan Heights in the City of San Diego, and in National City.

In each community, the underlying process is the same.

Building Community Power

BarrioLoganCommunityPlanningAuthentic 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.

One of the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods, City Heights takes the title for the most ethnically diverse community in San Diego, too.

Like other EHC target communities, much of the housing in City Heights remains old and poorly maintained. Our work in City Heights began through our Healthy Kids Campaign, helping families get their children tested for lead poisoning, helping them eliminate lead hazards, and making their homes more energy efficient. This work opened opportunities to participate more fully in broad-based community planning.

In 2010, The California Endowment embarked on a new, 10-year strategic direction: Building Healthy Communities. It aims to support the development of communities where kids and youth are healthy, safe and ready to learn. It selected City Heights as one of 14 communities in California to participate in this initiative. We lead the Built Environment Team that also includes City Heights Community Development Corporation, Proyecto Casas Saludables, and the International Rescue Committee.

Through house meetings, surveys, and community meetings, the team identified heavy traffic on University and Fairmont Avenues as a major concern. Heavy-duty trucks and cars emit air pollution and frustrate walkability for families.


The communities of Sherman Heights, Grant Hill and Stockton are connected to Logan Heights and Memorial by the Commercial Street/Imperial Avenue Corridor. These communities are referred to as Historic Barrio District. All of these communities are included in the large Southeastern San Diego Community Plan, adopted in 1987.

Individual neighborhoods have created various official revitalization plans and community visions:

Sherman Heights Revitalization Action Plan - 1995

Grant Hill Revitalization Action Program - 1998

Greater Logan Heights Neighborhoods First Quality of Life Plan – 2008/09

The Planning Department of the City of San Diego is currently coordinating development of a Commercial/Imperial Corridor Master Plan. EHC is working primarily with the Historic Barrio District Community Development Corporation (that includes the neighborhoods of Sherman Heights, Grant Hill, Stockton, Logan Heights and Memorial) to influence this vision of the Corridor as a vibrant community link.

Merchants located on Imperial Avenue have long complained that the area is "red lined" making it difficult to get loans and insurance. Insurance rates are 5-10 times higher than other parts of the city.

EHC's Associate Director Georgette Gomez is Vice President of the Historic Barrio District Community Development Corporation, chairing the community and economic development committee.

According to the Industrial Element of the Community Plan:

Rezonings in the 1970s, aimed at upgrading uses and providing industrial sites have not resulted in a change of uses. "Strip" industrial zoning in the western portion of the community has resulted in access problems and conflicts with adjoining uses. These strips are located along Imperial Avenue between Interstate 5 and 22nd Street, and along Commercial Street between Interstate 5 and Bancroft Street. In these strips, there is a mixture of residential and industrial uses which is permitted under the current industrial zoning. These areas were chosen for industrial development in part on the basis of the existence of railroad tracks within Commercial Street; however little use has been made of this advantage. The expected development has not materialized since the adoption of the community plan in 1969, as residences have not given way to industrial development. The industrial activities present in these areas are typified by warehousing, distribution and automobile dismantling. These uses hire few people, are environmentally incompatible with adjacent development and are aesthetically unpleasant. (emphasis added)

Atlas Chemical, Inc. on Commercial Street is one of these incompatible business. It stores and distributes a wide variety of toxic and hazardous materials within feet of homes.

Unfortunately, the draft Master Plan calls for the continuation of Commercial Street for light industrial, only gradually transitioning to commercial, residential, community serving and cultural uses.