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There’s a new movement for La Jolla to secede from San Diego. Why now? And who might benefit?

By David Garrick and Emily Alvarenga, David Garrick and Emily Alvarenga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: June 11, 2023, 5:52am

SAN DIEGO — A new effort to make La Jolla its own city appears to be more formidable than previous drives for independence and is being spurred by a more complicated mix of motivations.

Efforts to make La Jolla its own city separate from San Diego date back to the 1940s and emerge roughly once a decade. But previous tries have lacked funding, stopped short of proposing specific boundaries and typically focused on one or two issues.

Community leaders behind the latest effort have already paid a consultant for a financial analysis they expect to unveil this summer, and this spring, they released detailed maps of the proposed city of La Jolla.

This time, they are motivated in part by decaying infrastructure they say San Diego doesn’t have the capacity to fix, neglected amenities like parks and concerns that San Diego’s efforts to spur more dense housing could damage La Jolla’s character.

But their campaign is focused less on those grievances than on how they argue secession would benefit not just La Jolla, but the entire city of San Diego.

For the effort to succeed, they must secure approval from a majority of voters in both La Jolla and then the entire city of San Diego.

Their focus on how the rest of San Diego would benefit from La Jolla seceding is where things get complicated.

In recent years, San Diego has made social equity a top City Hall goal, and it plans to prioritize boosting the city’s most historically neglected and underserved neighborhoods, particularly those south of state Route 94.

The City Council has adopted new policies during the last two years that shift infrastructure, parks and library funding away from wealthier areas like La Jolla toward those long-neglected neighborhoods.

Leaders of the latest push for La Jolla independence say those new and controversial policies haven’t played a role in their desire to secede — but they also say there is a better way for La Jolla to help other parts of San Diego.

Instead of transferring tax dollars and developer fees from La Jolla to underserved areas of San Diego, they say they want to simply remove from San Diego’s to-do list all the infrastructure and maintenance challenges that come with an older neighborhood like La Jolla.

“You would be taking an old area with old infrastructure out of the mix and loosening up money for the city to spend in areas that desperately need it,” said Janie Emerson, a leader of the latest effort.

La Jollans could then solve their neighborhood’s infrastructure problems by approving a general obligation bond that would provide a windfall of upfront capital that La Jolla property owners would pay back over decades.

“Floating bonds would be great once we’re a city,” said Trace Wilson, another leader of the independence effort.

San Diego officials have talked for years about solving the city’s infrastructure problems with a bond measure — but the need for hard-to-achieve two-thirds approval from voters has discouraged them from putting anything on the ballot.

La Jolla leaders say enough voters there would likely support a bond restricted to the new city of La Jolla because they would know the money would be spent only on projects in their neighborhood.

They said another reason La Jolla residents would support a bond is what they say is a widespread local sense that, despite the area’s glitzy image, the neighborhood is crumbling.

“The image of La Jolla as this golden jewel on the hill where everything is hunky dory and our streets are paved with diamonds is absolutely not true,” Emerson said.

She said some streetlights in La Jolla Shores have been out for two years with no fix in sight, major streets are riddled with potholes, many alleys in Bird Rock remain unpaved and 30 percent of La Jolla lacks sidewalks.

Diane Kane, another leader of the independence effort, said that disappointment over decaying infrastructure is coupled with frustration that the city has focused less in recent years on neighborhood services and maintenance in the neighborhood.

“People want their trash picked up, they want their restrooms clean, they want the parks spiffed and they want the potholes fixed,” Kane said.

Many leaders in neighboring communities say they’ve purposely stayed out of La Jolla’s independence efforts. Others say they can understand the frustration, but also have concerns about its impact.

Corey Bruins, Ocean Beach Town Council president, says frustrations with maintenance efforts and lack of infrastructure funds aren’t confined to La Jolla, but no other neighborhoods are talking about secession.

“At the end of the day, every neighborhood is going to feel that way,” Bruins said. “I don’t think that I’ve talked to a community leader in San Diego who feels like they’re getting what they want from the city.”

Nicholas Reed, chair of the Clairemont Mesa Community Planning Group just east of La Jolla, said his neighborhood is just as frustrated as community leaders in its western neighbor.

Because most of San Diego’s neighborhoods were built in the 1960s and 1970s, many are now facing major problems with infrastructure that was designed to last about 50 years.

Marcella Bothwell, who chairs the Pacific Beach Planning Group, said La Jolla leaving now would be particularly bad timing for the rest of the city.

“I would be sorry to see them go, especially with our equity push,” she said.

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Emerson, one of the La Jolla independence effort leaders, said giving La Jolla leaders local control would help bolster the broader region’s status as a tourist destination.

She pointed to issues with standing water in the restrooms at La Jolla Shores last summer. “Your choices were to stand in liquid up to your ankles, go in the park or go in the ocean,” she said. “With social media, it’s not going to take too long for that to get out: ‘Don’t go to San Diego — their beaches are awful.’”

She said letting things continue as they are would hurt the whole region.

“We think this is going to be a broad-based approach to solve problems for the city of San Diego,” Wilson added. “It’s not just about La Jolla.”

Some advocates in other neighborhoods are skeptical that they would benefit from La Jolla leaving the city.

Barry Pollard leads the Urban Collaborative Project, an outreach program that works to address disparities within southeastern San Diego communities. He said the secession effort’s timing — coming as city funds are being directed to underserved areas — suggested it may be motivated by the city’s emphasis on equity, and its effects on La Jollans.

“They’re starting to experience slower response times to get to those potholes fixed,” he said of La Jolla. “Welcome to the club.”

He noted that the neighborhood generates a lot of funds for the city, much of which goes to underserved communities, and that independence would threaten that.

“That would be taking a lot of money away from communities, especially south of (Interstate) 8,” he said. “So that bothers me.”

The secession movement’s focus on potential benefits beyond La Jolla is likely motivated by the requirement under state law to win approval from voters throughout the city, which previous studies have shown gets more tax revenue from La Jolla than it spends there.

It’s also possible La Jolla independence leaders could attempt to get around that 2000 state law, the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act, however — by seeking either an outright repeal in Sacramento or special legislation exempting La Jolla from it.

Leaders of the independence movement said their effort has nothing to do with a recent sharp partisan shift at San Diego City Hall, now controlled entirely by Democrats after many years of divided government.

But they said the effort does have something to do with a slew of recent city legislation that aims to solve the housing crisis by loosening zoning rules, giving developers new incentives to build high-density housing and making rules for backyard units the most lenient in the state.

La Jolla hasn’t experienced the impact of many of those changes yet, because in that neighborhood they require lengthy California Coastal Commission approval after City Council approval. But leaders of the effort say they’re concerned.

“It’s part of the equation,” Emerson said.

Wilson said he was also frustrated that the city’s blueprint for La Jolla’s future growth, called a community plan, hasn’t been updated since 2014 and won’t be any time soon.

Those plans typically get updated only once every 30 years, but Wilson believes the 2014 update was not ambitious or thorough enough. He said new plans in neighboring communities, such as Mira Mesa and University City, take what he considers a more a sophisticated approach to absorbing future growth.

Emerson said she’s also been frustrated by the city’s lack of planning for sea-level rise, which has a particularly strong impact on La Jolla with its many miles of coastline.

After the ongoing financial analysis is unveiled this summer, leaders of the independence movement must submit their secession proposal to the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, a county agency that oversees community secessions and incorporations.

LAFCO approval would likely come with a recommendation for a financial arrangement — essentially a kind of municipal alimony, where La Jolla would pay San Diego millions per year for a certain number of years to compensate San Diego for lost tax revenue.

Then would come the public votes, one with just residents of the proposed city of La Jolla and then one with voters from all of the city of San Diego.

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