CASE STUDY: National City’s Amortization Ordinance

EHC-women-at-playground-w-fistsIn National City, community members used an innovative land use tool to clean up their neighborhoods, demonstrating the kind of land use solutions that are possible when community members are deeply and meaningfully involved in the planning process.

For decades, local resident leaders who serve as organizers with the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), or promotoras, have been central in organizing other community members to engage in land use planning for their neighborhoods. Through their leader training program called Salud Ambiental, Líderes Tomando Acción (or SALTA) and land use education sessions, organizers introduce community members to the planning process so that they can become leader advocates for the future of their neighborhoods.65

In the early 2000s, the community was deeply engaged in developing the Westside Specific Plan (WSSP) to craft a vision that would ensure compatible land uses between industrial and residential areas, while also ensuring a vibrant community with affordable housing, high-quality public transportation, and improved environmental health.66 The WSSP is extremely important for this community, a majority Latinx neighborhood containing a mix of residential and toxic industrial uses. Homes are frequently surrounded by auto body shops, chrome plating facilities, and chemical supply houses, on top of the diesel pollution from trucks coming in and out of the Port of San Diego. In 2010, the WSSP was successfully adopted.

However, a pervasive challenge with land use zoning is that it is primarily forward-looking, addressing where new development is permitted. Out of deference for facilities’ property rights, cities generally choose to “grandfather in” existing land uses, meaning that they can continue operating even if they are out of compliance with the local zoning. These so-called “nonconforming” uses can be hazardous to public health, and community members often have little recourse to make changes.

Community members in National City understood this limitation, and in the years prior had come up with a strategy to develop an “amortization” ordinance that would allow the city to phase out nonconforming uses. By working with the University of San Diego’s Environmental Law Clinic, EHC and community members developed an ordinance that would allow the Planning Commission to identify and prioritize nonconforming land uses to phase out over time. Community members, many of them mothers concerned for the health of their families, showed up to City Council meetings and gave testimony to demonstrate the need for this policy. In 2006, the city passed one of the nation’s first amortization ordinances designed as an environmental justice strategy.

Since the ordinance’s passage, National City’s Planning Commission has reviewed existing nonconforming land uses and has ranked the worst offending facilities. In 2013, the City Council approved a time frame to phase out two auto body shops that were two of the worst offending businesses in the neighborhood, demonstrating the initial success of the ordinance. At the same time, however, its effectiveness has been limited by the city’s hesitancy in using its powers to amortize nonconforming uses. This issue is further complicated by the fact that the rights of polluting businesses are often protected against the protests of community members.

While National City’s amortization ordinance has faced complications with implementation, it still remains one of the most promising solutions for addressing incompatible and grandfathered land use problems in California. This is important as a majority of communities across the state still lack options for phasing out nonconforming uses, proving that this issue remains a substantial gap in the local land use planning process. EHC’s promotoras demonstrated that EJ community members can devise innovative solutions for improving public health in land use planning, proving that EJ community residents deserve to have a voice in local decisions that may impact their health and well-being.