San Diego will challenge a court order invalidating a voter-approved ballot measure that sought to ease building height restrictions in the Midway District — while simultaneously developing a relief plan.

Mayor Todd Gloria said Friday he’s instructed staff to begin preparing an environmental impact report that studies taller buildings in the 1,324-acre region in case a second vote is needed. The work will take place as the city attorney’s office also appeals San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal’s decision to strike down Measure E.

“This analysis can move forward without impacting the legal appeal of the decision,” the mayor said in a statement. “My obligation is to respond to the will of the people, and San Diegans voted by a considerable margin to eliminate the 30-foot coastal height limit in the Midway Planning Area. The ability to build over 30 feet is critical to the redevelopment of the city’s sports arena property, which will add thousands of new homes to help solve our housing crisis – and which is essential to revitalizing a neighborhood that has waited decades to transform.

The appeals process will likely take “well over a year,” so the additional analysis could pave the way for a new vote on the measure in 2022, the mayor’s office said in a news release.

The dual-track approach is designed to avoid derailing San Diego’s second attempt to redo the 48 acres of land it owns at 3500, 3250, 3220 and 3240 Sports Arena Blvd. in the Midway district.

Currently, five development teams are vying for a long-term ground lease and are proposing dense projects with apartment buildings that exceed the 30-foot restriction. The competition, which is still in its early stages, marks a repeated effort to offload plots after the state of California said the first bidding process was in violation of surplus land law.

Judge Bacal apparently crippled the effort when she struck down Measure E last week. The ordinance, approved by 57 voters in November 2020, was aimed at hitting the Coastal Zone region and clearing the way for buildings taller than 30ft.

San Diego should have studied the environmental impacts of taller buildings before presenting the initiative to voters, as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act, judge said, siding with petitioner Save Our Access . A writ of mandate prohibiting the city from implementing Measure E is expected to be finalized next month and will outline how the city can potentially rectify the situation.

“This is a victory for public information,” said Everett DeLano III, an attorney representing Save Our Access. The group was founded by local environmental activist John McNab. “This case says, before we change the height limit, let’s make sure we have an honest and faith-filled discussion about the impacts that will be associated with it.”

San Diego planners, under the direction of the mayor, will now specifically assess the environmental impacts associated with eliminating the 30-foot height limit — even if the city attorney’s office holds firm in court. The city argues that Midway District’s community planning documents, approved in 2018, already weighed the impacts of taller buildings when it considered the plan’s zoning changes.

Both approaches take time, but the two-pronged answer is likely to provide potential sports site developers with enough confidence to proceed.

“You are talking about several months, maybe even a few years, before obtaining a decision (on appeal). Either way, the losing side would likely file a new appeal with the state Supreme Court,” said Cary Lowe, a retired attorney and city planner. “In the meantime, the city can certainly do (the environmental analysis) faster than that.”

The bidders for the sports arena site are currently in a 90-day negotiation period with the city and are expected to present their proposals to members of the city council next year.

“It’s so early in the process that I don’t think (the decision) will have a significant impact on selecting a partner and then negotiating a business deal,” said Penny Maus, chief operating officer. real estate and airport in the city.

Once selected, the winning group will still have to negotiate rental and development terms with the city. Those talks could last anywhere from six to 18 months depending on previous real estate transactions, giving the city leeway to address the building height issue.

“It’s a little disheartening that almost the same day we were filing our final findings, the court ruled against the measure,” said Marco Gonzalez, co-founder of Coast Law Group and adviser to the HomeTownSD team. “For a process with so much uncertainty associated with it, this just adds another layer of uncertainty and risk. However, I know that our team, and probably others, are fully committed to finding a solution that both respects the required process and allows a very good project to start on this site. »

Environmental assessments are often multi-year processes, although the city will seek to expedite the process.

Generally, the CEQA process begins with a preliminary analysis called an initial study which identifies potentially significant impacts and determines whether or not an in-depth environmental impact report is required. If formal analysis is required, then there is a notice of readiness which initiates a scoping period during which the public and various agencies can weigh in on the parameters to be examined. The process continues with months of analysis and a draft report that is reviewed by the public and government agencies before a final assessment is certified by a government agency – in this case, the San Diego City Council.

City planners, depending on the wording of the terms of reference, may only have to consider the visual impacts of buildings taller than 30 feet, instead of considering a broader range of impacts, such as air quality, noise and traffic. Presumably, they can also rely on the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the Midway District Community Plan Update to move the timeline forward. This report, or what is called an EIR program, studied the addition of over 10,000 residential units in the Midway District and estimated a population boom of 23,660 new residents.

At last count in 2015, the Midway District was home to only 1,935 residential units and had a total population of 4,600 people.

In the best-case scenario, the environmental work could be completed in the coming months and the measure returned to voters in the November 2022 ballot.