Learning A Lesson In Zoning Politics

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LA MESA -- The City Council chamber was standing-room only at 6 p.m. Tuesday as students from Valhalla High School crowded in to get a lesson in government.
Unfortunately, their teacher must have only required an hour-long visit and the students cleared out before the real civics lesson of the evening occurred.
From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. residents of the neighborhood around Northmont Elementary School gave a text-book lesson in local government as they argued over a proposal to open a daycare and preschool in the residential area adjacent to Northmont.

For the first half of the two-hour debate, speaker after speaker rose to praise the "awesome" work done by Anise and Egle Athari, the proprietors of the BunnyBears Inhome Preschool, who want to open a new, larger facility in a home located at the corner of Gregory Street and Howell Drive.

Traffic and noise consultants reported on studies that showed the little school -- with just 25 students -- would do little to add to the daily chaos that accompanied the comings and goings at the 425-student elementary school next door.

But then for the next hour, residents of what is largely a residential neighborhood around Northmont, vented decades of bilious frustrations of living with what has become daily rush hours as parents crowd the street to drop off and pick up at the elementary school and fill the nearby sports fields on nights and weekends.

BunnyBears, everyone agreed, is a small operation, but anything that added to the traffic in this neighborhood was clearly picking at pretty raw scabs. One opponent even hired a lawyer who added an almost comic layer of Inherit The Wind drama to this debate. Sensing a potential technical issue, the attorney argued that inadequate handicap parking on the property would lead to eventual litigation -- though, he, himself, was adamantly against this sort of handicap legalizing. Lawyers.

But, in the end, the council listened to all involved and then had to consider whether or not to support its Planning Commission, which had approved the BunnyBears' proposal, albeit with a long list of conditions.

Had the Valhalla students stayed, they would have watched as four of the five council members gave articulate defenses for their positions.

Council member Kristine Alessio, facing her first signifcant vote on council, sided with the commissioners she had just recently left to join this council. She said the conditions were stringent and would give neighbors more than adequate leverage if the center didn't perform properly.

Council member Mark Arapostathis, a teacher and a veteran of the La Mesa morning school zone traffic wars, lamented the parental fears that lead so many to drive their children all the way to school every morning, but said he couldn't see letting even a good school like BunnyBears add to that chaos at that particular corner.

Councilman Ernie Ewin said much of the neighbors' concerns had to do with Northmont, not this small addition to the neighborhood and he could support the Planning Commission's analysis.

Mayor Art Madrid cited decades of weighing both school traffic issues and the encroachment of commercial entities into residential neighborhoods and felt the Planning Commission had erred in this case.

That left, as the swing vote, Councilwoman Ruth Sterling, who lives just far enough down Gregory Street to avoid a conflict of interest in this case. In a long exigesis in which she sometimes mistook the Parking Commission for the Planning Commission, Sterling eventually made it clear she saw this good school as simply a commercial entity trying to locate in a residential neighborhood. "It is a business,'' she said.

That meant a 3-2 vote to overturn the Planning Commission and to go against the city staff's recommendation.

Had the Valhalla students hung in for the duration, they would have seen Madrid consoling his good friend and Planning Commission member Dexter Levy while the BunnyBears proprietors grieved with current and prospective parents outside the chamber.

The final lesson: Sometimes in politics, you can't split the baby.



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Comment by Scott H. Kidwell on February 28, 2013 at 10:58am

It seems we must surmise that Chris is exercising editorial tongue-in-cheek humor when he self-describes being "...untethered to any faction -- political or economic..." Just as one should not be a judge in your own cause, neither should a journalist or reporter be his/her own editor. Such is the stuff featured on the viewpoint pages of the newspapers of yesteryear.

I think there is no doubt Chris has experience, skill and a unique flair for blending opinion and satire with just the right facts to drive them home.

Comment by Barry Jantz on February 27, 2013 at 11:47am

I always prepare my prepared statements, when I've needed them.

Comment by chris shea on February 27, 2013 at 11:30am

I'd use the 30 year journalism card too.  It's an admirable achievement.

Good piece, Chris.  Keep up the good work.  Whilst there will ever and always be people who don't like what you write, there will also be people who read it and say,

"Good job!"  People like me.

Comment by La Mesa Today on February 27, 2013 at 10:46am


I have no problem with prepared statements. The question is who prepares them? I always ask that question. Sometimes I get an answer. Sometimes I don't. Sorry about the 30 year card. It's the only one I have. Thanks, as always, for your constructive engagement. I know we share the goal of community improvement.


Comment by David Smyle on February 27, 2013 at 10:13am

C'mon Chris.  Stop going to the 30 yrs of journalism card.  I have personally caught you misrepresenting known facts on issues and writing with a liberal and many times Madrid bias.  You also never miss a chance to say something negative about Councilmember Sterling's memory lapse or mis-statements but failed to criticize Madrid who is only 1 year younger for the same things.  Remember the "prepared statement" comments when Ruth was running for her Council seat and venom when she wouldn't grant you a personal interview but no criticism for Madrid's prepared statement on his tirade last meeting.?

Why was Sterling's vote the "swing vote" and not one of the other two no votes?  Case closed.

Comment by Barry Jantz on February 27, 2013 at 8:56am

Thanks, Chris. That is appreciated.  I should indeed have commented on the overall quality of the piece and of La Mesa today in general, in addition to my brief critique of one sentence in the story. Taking one of your most recent sentences, I too agree that LMT very often brings the "highest quality reportage we have at this time on these local issues." Thanks for your efforts and all you do.

Comment by La Mesa Today on February 27, 2013 at 8:49am


I appreciate your concern for objectivity and fairness. I share the goal and, in more than 30 years of reporting, writing and editing American newspapers, I have come to trust the readers to evaluate whether the facts presented, in whichever of the range of journalistic forms is exercised, hold up as fair and accurate. I think virtually anyone not politically engaged in the ever-shifting factions of local politics would see this work as being the highest quality reportage we have at this time on these local issues. I am a journalist untethered to any faction -- political or economic -- and with only concern for the community's well-being motivating the hours I spend watching and the striking the keys. Journalism, as Steinbeck once noted, is the first draft of history and it is the first thing the politicians try and control and manipulate. It is also the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap, he added. I trust the general public, untethered by political bias, will judge this work as honorable and truthful and forgive the stumbles when and if they occur. I thank you for your engagement in the communty.

Chris Lavin, Editor

Comment by Barry Jantz on February 27, 2013 at 7:50am

Interesting. I miss this...sometimes. My confusion is this is written like a straight news story, but then out of the blue it injects the writer's opinion. "Four of the five council members gave articulate defenses for their positions." If only four had spoken, that would still include a little bit of opinion. Since all five spoke, it's clearly opinion that one of the councilmembers wasn't as articulate as the others. I believe you, I really do (really!), but does it have a place in a straight news story? Or is this an opinion piece? Or both? One way in a news piece to get a point in the story without it being the writer's opinion is to include a quote from someone on what they thought of the councilmembers' comments. In journalism school they used to call this, "Show, don't tell."

Comment by Gene Carpenter on February 27, 2013 at 7:12am
I beg to differ. If the Day Care Owners knew enough folks on the City Council they would have been approved, no matter what. They could have ignored the CUP rules and still have won approval. It's all about who you know not if you follow the rules like the rest of us have to do. I site the Charter School at 5150 Jackson Dr.
They managed, somehow, to violate the CUP time after time from the very beginning and every time the neighbors protested we were rebuffed as two headed monsters that hate Charter Schools. They got everything they asked for from the City Council while the adjoining neighbors get to hear Middle School Children Scream all day as their play area abuts our property lines. The Council never took our concern serious. Bottom line is to hire an Attorney.
Comment by Kristine Christensen Alessio on February 26, 2013 at 11:18pm

The issue facing the Council was difficult.  But in the end it should have been an application of the facts to the law.  There were people who I have known for years and adore who were in opposition to this CUP.  There seemed to be a misunderstanding of land use principles and law on this issue.  A Conditional Use Permit is just that, a use that is permitted by within a zone conditionally (and there were a lot of conditions attached to this proposal).  It does not set precedent for future land use issues (unlike a variance wherein you have prior granting of the same to as a consideration of the approval process).  

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